After a full day of barnstorming (caféstorming? piestorming?) eastern South Dakota, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Rick Weiland took time to talk to me about his campaign. Knowing we have a good year-plus campaign to talk about issues, I used this opportunity to ask Weiland about himself as a candidate and how he'll use our blogging lifeblood, the Internet, to campaign.
Weiland opened our conversation with an admission of a dropped logistical ball: after nine hours of shaking hands, he was running out of campaign cards to hand out. What?! A Democrat running out of handouts? What intern do we hang for this one? Ha, said Weiland: the card shortage just meant he was getting to talk to more voters than he expected. He's on the good side of the curve.
One big question I asked Weiland was how the last eleven years have made him a better candidate. Remember, Weiland has run for statewide office twice. He lost the U.S. House race to John Thune in 1996, then lost the Democratic primary for U.S. House to Stephanie Herseth in her coming-out year of 2002. That latter year, the big bullets on his résumé were a decade and a half on Tom Daschle's staff and five years as Region 8 director for FEMA.
Weiland says the last eleven years have made him a more mature leader, businessman, and father. He worked for a year as AARP's South Dakota exec, working on senior issues. Then he spent ten years running the International Code Council. His proudest work there was moving the ICC toward integrating sustainability into its building codes. Weiland says that buildings consume 40% of our fossil fuel energy. Moving toward building practices that use less energy is good for businesses and government (we all like lower energy bills, right?) and it's good for the planet.
Working at ICC also gave Weiland some satisfaction in continuing his FEMA work from a diferent angle. Responding to disasters like the Spencer tornado and Black Hills wildfires, Weiland tackled the economic and human damage done by the more intense storms and droughts of climate change. The sustainability work that happened under his leadership at ICC is helping reduce the fossil-fuel use that Weiland sees contributing to that harmful climate change. More broadly, Weiland's ICC work was all about making buildings safer and stronger to reduce the damage disasters do to people and property. We have the best building safety in the world, says Weiland, because we have good building codes and sensible safety regulations.
Weiland's ICC work wasn't just about saving energy. As ICC exec, he was keenly aware of the enormous responsibility he had for his employees. Weiland oversaw over 300 employees (over 400 pre-recession). He was always mindful of his responsibility to those people.
On top of that non-profit experience, Weiland owns a small business. He and his wife Stacy opened Parker's Bistro in downtown Sioux Falls in 2009. Weiland says he's learned a lot just from making payroll for twenty-plus employees each month. The restaurant business is tough, but he and Stacy have made it work well enough that they've taken on a second downtown business venture, the Icon Lounge and Event Hall. (I like that both of his businesses are downtown, not out in urban-sprawl strip-mallia. Maybe that will influence Weiland's public policy toward more walkable downtown cores.)
Please note that being a small-business owner hasn't turned Weiland into a Republican. Monolithic partisanship does not serve small business well, says Weiland, especially when that partisanship, as sometimes expressed in big-business lobbying organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the NFIB, is tilted so much toward large corporations. Small businesses, says Weiland, need to look beyond partisan assumptions to protect their own interest.
Meanwhile, Rick and Stacy have raised five kids. All but one of the children is out of the house (their youngest starts her junior year at Lincoln HS this fall). If one can survive that much fatherhood, one can probably tackle any challenge. Having the kids all pretty much grown up puts Rick in a position where he can relax more and enjoy the campaign more than a dad with five kids waiting at home for him can.
With his leadership experience and his business and family status, Weiland feels like he's in a good place to run for office in 2014. The importance of holding the seat Tim Johnson is leaving open made it easy for Weiland to choose the Senate race. He's also motivated to get back in the ring by the harm he's seen done by the Citizens United ruling. In the talk he gave yesterday to the crowd at his first Madison campaign appearance and in his chat with me, Weiland repeatedly lasered in on the need to stop big corporations and big money from driving health and energy and social policy and drowning out the people's voice. We've had one election cycle bombed with corporate super-PAC money; Weiland says this cycle is the time to fight back.
Big money has changed campaigns; so has the Internet. Weiland says he put up one of the first federal candidate campaign websites during his first run in 1996. Back then, when our 28K modems kerrang-kerranged onto a blogless, Google-less Web, Weiland asked his team if he could take campaign donations online. They said no way: credit-card verification and security would be far too complicated. Now Weiland can set up an ActBlue widget himself and be taking donations online in under five minutes.
Online fundraising is one big change Weiland sees in how he can use the Web more than he did in 1996 or 2002 to win the election. He noted that in 2002, Stephanie Herseth got a boost from Emily's List, which aggregated lots of small donations. Now any candidate can do that with an effective online campaign. With the Republican favorite, M. Michael Rounds, bragging about planning to raise $9 million and spending 80% of his time fundraising, Weiland says he could compete by getting a million people to each give him $9. That may sound wishful, but with today's Web technology, it's doable. Don't forget: lots of small online donations are a big part of why you call Barack Obama Mr. President. They'll also be why you call Rick Weiland Senator.
Weiland also sees the importance of using the Web to reach young voters. With issues like student loans crying out for young voters' attention, Weiland knows he needs to reach those young voters where they are... and most of them, dare I say, are staring at their phones. Weiland sees this on his own team: like me, he believes e-mail has staying power, but he has to remind his daughter Taylor, who's working on the campaign this summer, to check her e-mail, because she's used to texting. (You know, I'll bet there's an app to keep Taylor in the loop....)
In our one-on-one conversation and in his interaction with all the voters who attended yesterday's event in Madison, Weiland displayed the energized eyes, voice, and smile of a man who's enjoying his work. He also showed a thoughtful understanding of important campaign issues, not just of the policies that we will debate here in the blogosphere and in other public fora, but also of the process, the practical things he has to do to run an effective campaign. He knows he has a good résumé, good ideas, and a good critique of Washington; he also knows he needs to use the Web tools that didn't exist during his previous campaigns to sell that résumé, those ideas, and that critique to donors and voters.
Fellow Dems, feel good: you have a candidate running for Senate who can make the sale. Go see him in Canton, Beresford, and Yankton tomorrow. Have some pie.