This is the second in a series of posts that include pieces of my dissertation, No One Can Whistle a Symphony: Essays on Congressional Campaign Teams and Talent. You might skip over this part when you read most books. But it was by far my favorite section to write:
Before beginning a Ph.D. program, I spent six years investing in entrepreneurs. I was not a natural. When I started, in fact, I did not know that equity had any meaning other than . Having previously worked in community development and social work, I was less concerned with our return-on-investment than with the teams and leaders we invested in.
I carried this interest with me into graduate school. Having been exposed to the academic study of entrepreneurship during my MBA program, I came to Texas hunting for research on entrepreneurial behavior and teams in political science and public policy. To my surprise, I found both disciplines so committed to the study of institutions and structures that individual decision-making seemed to have been lost in the shuffle. I hope this dissertation will contribute to the re-introduction of individual agency to the study of policy and politics by shedding light on a curiously overlooked set of actors in the political arena: the campaign staff and consultants that do the work of getting elected officials elected. Who are these people? Why do they do this? Are they good at it? Given my background financing startup companies, I initially approached the universe of campaigns as an industry. I now believe political campaigns to be better understood as a “field of action” than just an industry. As luck would have it, it also happens to be one with a rich set of publicly available data.
Academic curiosity and technical feasibility, however, do not tell the whole story—not for me, at least. I moved from an early career in community development into social impact investing and finally into studying politics out of a compulsion to understand and change the systems that shape how we live, and that crush so many people underfoot in the process. Elected officials write those rules; and I hope that by illuminating the process by which they get into the position to write rules for the rest of us, I can make just a bit more transparent how communities kept out of power might feasibly widen one path into political participation and, therefore, political power.
“No one can whistle a symphony,” American theologian Halford E. Luccock is alleged to have said. “It takes a whole orchestra to play it.” I will not claim this dissertation to be symphonic, but it did require an orchestra’s worth of characters for it to come into being, including Dr. Varun Rai and my other committee members, and their patience with multiple drafts and consults; Marc Ventresca and Tim Hannigan, who introduced me to sociological understandings of entrepreneurship, organizations, and life; Bryan Jones, Sean Theriault and the other members of the Policy Agendas Project in the UT-Austin Government Department who welcomed me as an adjunct member; Jesse Crosson, Alan Wiseman and Geoff Lorenz, for early feedback; Meeta Kothare, Steve Gray and Andrew Caldwell Marquez, the Texas McCombs students and faculty who treated me as one of their own; Jeremi Suri, who among other things cast the first vote of confidence in this interdisciplinary topic; Vivek Shastry, Cale Reeves, Bryan Frizzelle, Matt Worthington, Xue Gao, the Clements Center crew and my other public policy classmates who taught me theory and methods and models and code; Clare Zutz, Victoria Rodriguez and David Springer, who smoothed my path into the PhD program; Marv Hackert and Elizabeth Korves, my Graduate School support system; Chet Polson, who walked me across one particular coding bridge I was ready to burn down; and John Hardman, Matt Scott, Zoe Schlag, and Molly Alexander, leaders whose examples I strive to follow.
I am fortunate to have too much family to thank individually, but here are a few: my mother, who consistently encourages my reading and puzzling and questioning, edits my writing (including this dissertation!), and made certain I understood early on that being good at school made me no better and no worse than anyone else; my father, who constantly reminded us that we’re all on the same team; my brother, from whose self-reliance I drew the clarity to start a Ph.D.; my sister and fellow pata de perro, whose spirit is a natural reminder not to take myself too seriously; my paternal grandparents Albert (“Doc”) Hand and Beverly King Hand, who always encouraged—even demanded—curiosity; to my maternal grandparents Dorothy (“D.D.”) and Bobby Aillet, who knew and lived out that “it is always about the people;” and to my adopted Webb family, for their fierce and loyal support.
I would also like to thank the candidates and staffers who offered me their time and trust in the middle of an intense, pandemic-ridden 2020 election season without even the promise of seeing their names in this dissertation; and the political professionals, including those from the Truman Project for National Security, who helped me wrangle them into interviews: JS, LH, KR, MG, SvM, KJ, BG, and AT. I am grateful, too, to those who have funded my education along the way, including my parents, the Skoll Foundation, the Ingram family, Joanne Fleming-Hayes, the Rotary Foundation, the Harrington family, the Dirksen Congressional Center, and the UT-Austin Strauss Center; to Josh Basseches, one of many whose randomly well-timed pieces of advice (“Don’t lose sleep about that part…yet.”) smoothed the rough edges of this process; to all those whose publicly available data and code this is built upon, including the Federal Election Commission, Adam Bonica, Ballotpedia.org, and the #Rstats community; the Provident1898 crew, which welcomed me in all my end-of-dissertation mania; and to the friends I have made across multiple continents whose memories remind me of my obligation to use whatever position I have to help push power out to the powerless.
Lastly, I would like to thank Dr. Ashlyn (“Lynnie”) Saylors Webb Hand, who has heard more articulations of this text than any human should be subjected to and who never—not once—allowed me to doubt my ability to get it over the line. I have been on many, many teams in my life and career. There is no team I am more grateful to be on than yours.