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A New Approach To Campaigns: Competitive Candidate School


There's a lot more interest in running for office around the country, and there are lots of organizations out there looking to find and train candidates who'll further their agendas. In Austin, one program is taking an approach that looks a lot like the TV show "Shark Tank." Audrey McGlinchy from member station KUT has our story.


AUDREY MCGLINCHY, BYLINE: It's 5 p.m. on a Friday in a hip bar and hostel. The music's bumping pretty hard, considering how few people are taking up the velvet booths. A woman walks in carrying a duffel bag.

LEIGH SALINAS: Hi. My name is Leigh Salinas. I'm a CPA.

MCGLINCHY: Salinas works at a snack brand. She'll be spending the weekend in a hostel bunk bed along with 24 other Austin residents, all young professionals but not here for a vacation. Instead, they'll talk about how to get elected.

Are you going to run for local office one day?

SALINAS: I think so, yes.

MCGLINCHY: So Salinas applied for some help from a candidate school run by this guy.

WARD TISDALE: Ward Tisdale. I am executive director of the Center for Austin's Future.

MCGLINCHY: The organization's biggest project - Tisdale's calling it the ATXelerator.

TISDALE: A candidate school that adopts tech accelerator-like qualities.

MCGLINCHY: Which means it's going to get competitive.

TISDALE: Competition brings out the best in people.

MCGLINCHY: Participants spend a weekend getting to know each other. Then they take six weeks of classes on city issues - transportation, budget, land use. In tech or startup accelerators, entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas and vie for investor funding. But in this model, participants pitch themselves, vying for support from a political action committee. I described the idea to Amos Schwartzfarb. He's the managing director of Techstars in Austin, one of the country's first tech accelerators. He says the accelerator model is nothing new.

AMOS SCHWARTZFARB: I think back when I was a kid and an athlete, as a junior high school and high school student, for me, it was specifically for wrestling. I'd go to these immersive camps. And the idea was you'll learn more and get fitter in two or three weeks than you would over the course of a full season because this is all you do. You live, eat, breathe, sleep it all day long.

MCGLINCHY: Schwartzfarb has never heard of applying this model to politics, but he likes it.

SCHWARTZFARB: The thought of the average person having more than just a vote as their political voice is not something that most people thought about.

MCGLINCHY: Most candidate schools don't train just anyone. Participants in the ATXelerator share similar ideas about city planning, that Austin should grow into a more urban city with walkable neighborhoods and denser development. Patsy Woods Martin is the executive director of Annie's List. It's a nonprofit that trains women to run for elected office in Texas but not just any woman.

PATSY WOODS MARTIN: Our mission is to elect pro-choice, progressive women to office across the state.

MCGLINCHY: Woods says while her group supports certain women, they don't ask people to compete, unlike the accelerator model. That's by design.

WOODS: Women have a hard time deciding to run for office. And so we want to provide the opportunity to understand the process to as many people as possible.

MCGLINCHY: The ATXelerator has a different goal. They want to sharpen people's competitive skills. Kerry Tate is a longtime Austin political consultant. She agrees.

KERRY TATE: To compete for funding, compete for ideas, learn how to frame or brand yourself and put yourself out there, you may be a little more stimulated to get that done if you're competing for something.

MCGLINCHY: Which is what the ATXelerator is setting Leigh Salinas up to eventually do. On the last day of this initial retreat, the group hears a presentation on the city's demographics and transportation. There's a session on how to run a campaign featuring a former council member and a mayor. Then time to pack up.

SALINAS: Nothing left.

MCGLINCHY: You got makeup, all that stuff? Toothbrush?

Salinas grabs her bags and heads to the door. She's still got two months of the political accelerator to go - six weeks of classes, at the end of which she'll pitch herself as a candidate. Salinas is already forming her spiel.

SALINAS: I am from the business community. I've just been thinking about how can I take my business skill set and, you know, my accounting skill set and my, you know, acumen with numbers and business and apply it to these city problems?

MCGLINCHY: And then she's out the door.

Bye, Leigh (laughter).


MCGLINCHY: Accelerating away to take a nap, she tells me. For NPR News, I'm Audrey McGlinchy in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAKING AIDA'S "INCANDENZA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audrey McGlinchy
Audrey McGlinchy is the City Hall reporter at KUT, covering the Austin City Council and the policies they discuss. She comes to Texas from Brooklyn, where she tried her hand at publishing, public relations and nannying. Audrey holds English and journalism degrees from Wesleyan University and the City University of New York. She got her start in journalism as an intern at KUT Radio during a summer break from graduate school. While completing her master's degree in New York City, she interned at the New York Times Magazine and Guernica Magazine.