Professional political consultants give Cal students a lesson in real life political campaigning

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- It's not every day that college students learn campaign politics from the communications director for a United States presidential hopeful.

It's rare, too, for them to regularly pick up insider strategies in class from someone who's managed campaigns for U.S. senators and candidates for governor.

This semester, such learning happens every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon at the University of California, Berkeley, when political consultants Darry Sragow and Dan Schnur teach a course called "Campaign Politics."

"This is a course in pure, practical politics," said visiting instructor Schnur, communications director for U.S. presidential candidate John McCain. "This is about real people and real-world campaigns."

The Department of Political Science undergraduate course teaches students how to organize a campaign, develop and communicate a campaign message, raise money, attract volunteers and motivate supporters.

It represents one of the latest efforts by the department to offer students practical knowledge about politics, in addition to the traditional courses that emphasize a more abstract and analytical approach, said department chair Robert Price.

A growing number of students are planning to work on political campaigns, said Bruce Cain, chair of the campus's Institute of Governmental Studies, and they want to learn more about such work.

Schnur, a Republican, has taught the course at UC Berkeley for several years. But this is the first semester he's taught while working full time on a campaign.

It's also the first time he's teamed up with Sragow, another visiting instructor. A Democrat, Sragow has managed five statewide campaigns in California, including races by Alan Cranston, Dianne Feinstein and Al Checchi.

Schnur, former press secretary to Pete Wilson and a former spokesman for the 1988 Bush-Quayle presidential campaign, draws on a wealth of media and communications knowledge.

Sragow, who served as campaign manager for the California Assembly Democratic Caucus in 1996 and 1998 and handled several ballot measures, is an expert on everything from mobilizing volunteers to marketing a candidate to fund raising.

While some students eye jobs doing campaign strategy work, others, like senior Cris Arzate, a political science major at UC Berkeley, also are considering a run for office some day.

"I listen to their experiences to get more first-hand knowledge to draw upon outside of this class," Arzate said. "The class offers a lot of information on how to create an awareness of a campaign, the theme, and how to publicize that through the media to the public. It's been one of the better classes I've taken at Cal."

Arzate especially hopes to share his campaign strategy in ethnic minority communities to help promote Latino candidates.

Spreading such knowledge is one of the key reasons Sragow wanted to teach the course. Many key issues in life, he said, are decided behind closed doors by an elected official and his or her inner circle of advisors.

"The trick is to be in the room when the door gets closed," Sragow said. "I would hope this class would encourage at least some of the participants to invest themselves in the process and get involved in campaigns, get involved in the work that their elected officials do so that they can make a difference."

Almost half of each student's final grade is based on writing an effective campaign plan - one that includes campaign organization, management, strategy and tactics - for a real politician. Schnur then submits the best paper to the actual candidate or the candidate's advisor.

"I once had a 'Barbara Boxer for Senate' paper that was better than the real thing," Schnur said.

While Schnur focuses on communications and messages, Sragow draws on his background as a campaign manager.

"I like tapping into my own personal experiences and sharing them with the class as much as I can," said Sragow. "I will play off of things they know about that are current. Sometimes, I'll just turn the tables and ask them about an issue."

Sragow tries to convey political ideas in terms that everyone can understand. During one recent class, he offered a terse assessment of running for office:

"In essence, when you're a candidate, you're applying for a job," he said. "Think of it as a job interview.

Schnur and Sragow have taught students the importance of developing a winning biography for a candidate. Schnur said it should include personal, political and professional accomplishments, to give the candidate more credibility.

"Senator McCain served in the U.S. Navy and was a prisoner of war," said Schnur. "He doesn't like to talk about it on the campaign trail, but it gives voters a sense of who he is and what he's done."

Working on the McCain campaign has limited the amount of time Schnur can spend in the classroom. But whether McCain wins or not, Schnur figures the students ultimately benefit.

"I hope I will have much more to offer," he said. "The campaigning is a way to update my stories. You can't talk about something that happened in 1984 forever."


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