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Martin Rather on New York Politics, Journalism, and the Race for the 73rd District

Martin Rather is a journalist, author, and the current campaign manager for the historic Cameron Koffman for Assembly campaign running to represent New York’s 73rd district.

From the campaign office on 57th to the streets of New York City, Martin and I have worked closely together for the past couple of months on policy and planning. He has not only taught me much about political strategy, but he has also shown me how much of an impact young people can have on politics on a local and statewide level. Recently, Martin and I sat down to discuss his interest in the intersection between journalism and politics as a medium to make change, and the historic nature of the campaign he’s leading.

HDW: While at Rice University, in collaboration with students at Sam Houston State University, you worked on a broadcast called The Underreported, highlighting stories that weren’t about Trump. I was hoping you could talk about some of the lessons that you learned while working on that specific project and highlight some of the stories people should be talking about now that you would call under-reported, if that was something that you were still doing.

Rather: I think that’s a very good question. The first thing is I’m really proud of The Underreported. The tagline was: no Trump, no panels, no ads--focusing on the news that get lost in the cycle. We had a bunch of college students volunteering from around the country. We had climate change correspondents, infrastructure correspondents, and people in the business community. I think the same stories that we covered then are still failing to be covered. Obviously I recognize the importance of covering the pandemic and all of the protests, but you still see stories missed on climate change and infrastructure among other things. There’s so much more that can be done there.

We have a news cycle, unfortunately, that is dominated by one man, and that man is Donald Trump. But I would say, one specific thing that could be covered more, relating to this campaign, is campaign finance, and the ways in which it really affects every single race. Who’s determined to be credible, who’s determined not to be credible.

HDW: I think the premise is also really interesting. Many experts speculated that the amount of coverage that Trump received on channels like MSNBC or CNN contributed to his victory, among other things, because his voice and message were amplified to such an extent. I also agree, electoral politics would look so different if money was not central to the process. We’d have more qualified politicians in office and less corruption.

I’m also curious, turning back the clock a little bit, about your own engagement in politics. Naturally there is an intersection between journalism and politics, so I was wondering how you first became involved in politics, and how you eventually came to work in the capacity that you are today as the campaign manager for a major New York democratic campaign, widely considered to be a serious threat to the current incumbent.

Rather: I’ll start by saying this. I don’t view being a campaign manager as an occupation, and I don’t view politics as a sport. I view them as means to a better world that we can create. I think that comes in a lot of different forms. When I worked for Rachel Maddow, for example, I felt that we were working to create something better, highlighting stories, much like with The Underreported on a different scale, that needed to be told. Politics is the same way, but there’s slightly more direct action. We are able to have a more direct influence than just reporting what’s going on. I think that it’s about changing the narrative, that’s the best way to put it. In this specific election, it’s about changing the narrative on who can represent the East Side and what’s possible. You want to advocate for the right causes. Sometimes that’s through journalism, sometimes that’s through politics or coaching a girls basketball team in the East End of Houston. It’s about how we can get better narratives and better people in the right positions.

HDW: Certainly, and politicians would have more trouble identifying and dismantling injustices if they weren’t reported on, assuming that they are doing just that. Could you talk about how you first met Cameron [Koffman]?

Rather: Cameron and I met when we were 15 years old at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership, a semester school in Washington D.C. which I know you are also an alumnus of, and we did not like each other when we first met. We were the only two boys from New York City, and we felt, maybe this town might not be big enough for the two of us--but it was. After a rocky start, we really ended up hitting it off. Did I see it culminating in running Cameron’s campaign years later? No, I didn’t.

This campaign has already gotten so much farther than anybody thought it would in the first place, because first, it takes a lot of courage for Cameron to even run and put himself out there. Secondly, it took a lot of things to be here with a chance to win this election. It was just perfect timing for what I wanted to do and what Cameron wanted to do, so it worked out in that way. But I never could have envisioned it or imagined getting this far. At the time, the idea of really young people running for office, and the idea that democratic primaries could be competitive--all of these things were completely foreign in the fall of 2013 when we were studying at SEGL. This goes to show how politics can change really quickly.

HDW: The only example I can think of, which I was lucky enough to be a part of as a volunteer, was when AOC beat Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in 2016. Young people challenging incumbents is difficult and rare, but inspiring nonetheless.

Rather: There were some cases I can think of--for example, Eric Swalwell or Seth Moulton--but people in their twenties coming out and seizing the mantle is certainly not common.

HDW: Well our campaign is certainly youth-centric. You and Cameron are twenty-three, our main organizers are also in their twenties, and the student group I’ve brought together is composed entirely of high school students, so it can be done. We hear about news outlets labeling the campaign as historic in more ways than one. Could you talk about how we’ve pushed the envelope and done things in ways campaigns haven’t done before?

Rather: I would point to a few things. First, Cameron’s candidacy itself. He’d be the youngest Assemblyman if elected since Teddy Roosevelt. The Upper East Side does have a tendency to be represented by young people, but usually people that have come up through the democratic establishment. Cameron is running as an anti-establishment candidate, and I think it’s very rare for a young person to do that in a credible way, and you mentioned that there are only a few people that have done that in the past couple of years.

Secondly, in terms of the young people we’ve been able to galvanize, especially through your student group. But I want to be clear--this is a campaign for people of all ages. We have people working in this campaign who are in their forties and thirties as well. But, the core group of people that have been working on this from start to finish, have all been very young, in their early twenties. To be able to have any impact on New York City or state politics in your early twenties in any capacity is really difficult and historic in and of itself.

We did have a historic fundraising period, which I think was spurred by hard work--so many phone calls, so many events, making sure that we could get our message out. In a quantitative sense, another historic aspect of our campaign was through grassroots fundraising.

Finally, our opponent sued us in state court to attempt to remove Cameron from the ballot on a residency claim, arguing that if you vote on campus in college, you are not a resident of your home state, despite all evidence to the contrary including jury duty, tax returns, and where he kept his personal belongings. The lower court agreed with our opponent, but thankfully, on appeal, the case was reversed. That was a historic win because it expanded the ability for young people to vote on campus freely without fearing repercussions, able to come back home and run for office. It was really a victory for tens of thousands of New Yorkers.

HDW: It bodes well for the campaign, winning in a legal setting, so hopefully we can win in an election setting as well. As you know, the coronavirus has taken a devastating and saddening toll on this country, partially because of the speed at which it spread, but also because of the President’s lack of a response. Campaigning in the age of coronavirus, separately, presents a whole new set of challenges, but also opportunities for service. Do you think we’ve adapted to this new set of circumstances and done right by our community in its time of need?

Rather: Obviously, the coronavirus goes far beyond politics. You look at 100,000 people dead in America, and even more around the world. We all have just tried to do our part. The great thing about politics though, as we’ve discussed, is that it brings people together. We already had the infrastructure in place by running a campaign to be able to bring people together to help the community. We began by doing grocery runs and check-in calls, and with the help of about a hundred of your friends, we organized days of action to make even more calls, deliver food, and do laundry for seniors. We’ve also been giving out literally thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and thousands of masks to anybody who wants one. I genuinely think that has had an impact, seeing people around the city pull out bottles of hand sanitizer we gave out and use them. It makes me really proud to be a part of a team that decided that we were going to put our community over politics, focusing full time on helping the community bounce back.

HDW: I agree it’s admirable that we’re organizing the resources of the campaign to help people. From a broader standpoint, what do you think makes an effective campaign? This would include team dynamics, having a strong message, an effective apparatus to move forward.

Rather: I think every campaign is done in by infighting. Our number one goal from the start was for that not to happen, and so far we’ve been able to accomplish that goal. Nothing is ever going to go perfectly, throughout an incredible longshot battle of nine months, but I think it’s about building a team and making sure that teams stays together. People join and fall off, but the key is that whoever is on board at any time works together. We pick each other up, we don’t put each other down.

I also think it’s important to have a broader purpose and message than just winning-- that we’re going to do something once we’re there. Since day one, we’ve been able to highlight the difference between Cameron as an Assembly member, and his opponent as an Assembly member, and I think people have really bought into that message of change.

I’m also a big believer, whether it’s in politics or sports, that you have to execute the fundamentals. This means you have to be prepared to do things like regulatory filing correctly. It means you know how to reach people through social media. You know who you should be talking to and you’re seeking the right endorsements, and you know who the community leaders are. Then you have a strong foundation on which to build. But a lot of campaigns this year, from what I’ve seen, have failed to execute the basic fundamentals, and that’s put us in a better place than most.

HDW: We do also have a diverse array of policies that address many issues, both systemic and newly created. Is there a specific one you’d like to highlight here? My guess is you’d want to discuss our policy on education because of your work on the Rather Prize in the Texas education system.

Rather: Firstly, I appreciate the reference there. I think we need to create not only a more equitable education system, but based on my experience, it’s really about fostering innovation in education. It can be a really difficult space to make change in, because you don’t want to take risks with children’s lives. The best way that I’ve found is by empowering people who are actually in the system. That means teachers and students and principles and administrative staff--they should be the ones with a much stronger voice rather than legislators who do not spend time in schools. Also, allow schools to use funding in the best ways that they see fit, because they’re the ones experiencing it every day, not people in office.

In terms of another favorite policy that's really hyper specific to this campaign, I think that ethics reform is thoroughly needed in Albany. Corruption is far too strong in New York. Every elected body has corruption in it; it’s kind of the nature of the beast. There are studies that show we have the most corrupt legislature in the country. You can look at the sheer fact that anybody trying to challenge anybody in power in New York politics gets immediately knocked down, either through procedural or bureaucratic nonsense designed to protect incumbents and maintain the status quo. You can look back and see that this is not a new problem for New York. It’s been that way.

I think that we have a lot of policies, including banning outside income, to address this issue. Congress caps outside income at 15% of a Congressmember’s salary, but in New York there’s no cap. You have some legislators, including the one that represents the 73rd district right now, who make more in outside income than what they do for the legislature. When you make six figures as a legislator, it’s really hard to justify that, especially when that money comes from defending insurance companies. His is the perfect test case of needing ethics reform.

With the lawsuit which was brought against Cameron, for somebody who’s entering a primary, to not have to face one himself is just not right. It's a hypocrisy that voters really don’t like. The immediate assumption was that the Assemblymember is going to win that lawsuit, so I’m really glad the judicial system came through in a fair way.

HDW: The hypocrisy is certainly evident, and I’m proud the campaign has already chipped away at Albany corruption without even being in office yet-- it’s a win for our team, as well as for thousands of New Yorkers.

Rather: I think that’s exactly right. Win or lose, we’ve already made change and paved the road for somebody else to run someday, so I’m really proud of what we’ve done there.

HDW: Do you think we’ll win in the democratic primary June 23?

Rather: I do. We started off as severe underdogs when we got into this race, but the goal was to come out on election day with a chance to win, and I think that there’s no doubt that’s the position we’re in. When this campaign started, people said that this was “2020’s most ridiculous primary challenge.” There was a major news story about how this campaign had little chance of winning. The sentiment was, there’s no way that this could happen, but I think now the voters of the 73rd district recognize that Cameron could win, and I think it would be the right thing to happen. I also think the results of this race will not be decided on election night. I think it’s going to be so close that it may take a week or more, God forbid even another lawsuit, to settle this.

HDW: We can hope for the best, but we’ve worked hard and served this district in more ways than one regardless, and that’s a definite success. In reference to your role as campaign manager, from what I’ve seen, you have to juggle many things at once and do all of them well-- communication, planning, political strategy, to name a few elements. What advice do you have on how to fulfill the responsibilities of this position to be successful in politics?

Rather: This is only the second campaign I’ve been a part of, and the first I’ve gotten the chance to lead, but I would say a couple things. Firstly, it does go back to the fundamentals. The fundamentals are to make sure that you communicate effectively, and to over communicate and outwork anybody and everybody. For us, that means out working the other campaigns, and as campaign manager, I’m doing my very best. I don’t want anybody to be working at any time that I’m not as well, and I think that’s the best way to be a leader. You can lead by example and work as hard as you can, because that’s the only way you can ask others to do the same.

I am in touch with a lot of different people throughout the day, juggling a lot of different things, but if you prioritize correctly, you can be successful. Also having such a strong student group, which has been with us for months and months, is really important. We have some rising stars on that team which you’ve been able to lead really effectively. It’s about making sure that you all, in addition, have what you need, and being in constant communication.

Overall, I view it the same way I view coaching basketball. I’m not the one who takes the shots, but I try to do my best to put people in a position where they’re open and able to be successful. If somebody’s a strong writer, let’s put them in a position where they’re writing. If somebody’s really good at communicating with people on the phone, let’s put them on the phone. The same way in basketball, if someone’s a great three point shooter, you don’t put them in the paint. I think it’s really about putting people in the right roles, and I think so far we’ve been able to do that.

HDW: I appreciate the basketball metaphors and think they’re very effective.

Rather: Well, I miss basketball, if you haven’t noticed.

HDW: How is the country and the political process changing, and where is it going considering everything happening recently?

Rather: It’s a great question. People say, potentially, that there’s going to be a split in the Democratic Party between those on the far left and those closer to the center. I definitely see that happening, but I also see a new question being posed: what type of experience do we want people in office to have? For a long time, you worked your way up the chain in politics in the same way you might do in a business. We’re moving away from that. People may not want somebody who was a city council member, and then a small-town mayor who’s now running for Congress. They may be more inclined to vote for somebody who’s out in the community as a teacher or an organizer. Trump had not held elected office before running for the Presidency. I think it may move towards people who have not been in politics. Although there’s certainly a case to be made that Trump proved you need the most experience out there. Whether it’s AOC or Trump who hadn't held elected office before, it’s happening on both sides of the spectrum.

Politics are a pendulum. Right now we’re going through a more bombastic, conservative era, but we’ll see that pendulum swing back. Whether it comes from professors or think tank leaders or community organizers, I don’t know, but the pendulum will swing back around.

HDW: Hopefully into the blue, or on the side of justice and progress. But I think we have to make the pendulum swing. The universe does not curve toward justice, it is brought there by those with grit and empathy in my opinion. What are your thoughts on the Biden candidacy?

Rather: I think that Biden could do more to reach young people on social media. He had a great response to the pandemic, but I’m not sure that’s gotten out to people yet--I’m not sure it’s reached the collective American mind. It’s also important to see who he surrounds himself with--who his team is, who his pick for VP is, his campaign manager, and who he picks to advise him on domestic and foreign issues.

He has to make sure, most importantly, that every vote is counted in a fair way. He does know his way around transfers of power, in addition, if it comes to that.

HDW: Where do you see yourself going next, regardless of what happens tomorrow on election day?

Rather: After the 23rd, I’d like to take at least one nap. This campaign really inspired a passion for the law for me. I spent about two months diving into intricate election law, and I loved every minute of it. This campaign has proven that the justice system can be fair and empowering, but there are still issues, so I’m considering the idea of becoming a lawyer. But regardless of whether we win or lose, I think there will be opportunities to continue his message and continue helping other young people enter politics and have their voices heard.

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