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Risk and opportunity: Campaign manager

Around the time of my last post, I became a campaign manager for a young man running for a local election in my hometown. I'd been following his campaign since January and started getting involved at the beginning of June following my graduation ceremony. That was also around the time I'd received a handful of tough rejections from job opportunities. My priority for 2018 had been to be involved in the Tennessee midterms. Originally, I hoped to be a good journalist, reporting the news while maintaining proper distance. Deep down inside, though, I wanted to do more. I wanted to register people to vote. I wanted to meet candidates and talk to constituents. I wanted to listen and to be heard.

The internal conflict I've had this year is rooted in my education as a journalist. For the past five years, I've been drilled in the mentality of objective and unbiased behavior. Participating in a campaign is a no no. At least that's I thought. As I spoke with more mentors and colleagues, though, I was actually encouraged to go through with it. In fact, I learned that a lot of journalists have worked in politics. When you think about it, aside from a handful of exceptionally trustworthy organizations, most major news outlets have a fairly obvious tilt. I was comforted to discover that my decisions would not put my career too far back. That said, I was warned to stay true to my code and beliefs, that I would be challenged to make choices that could confront my ethics. I decided that if I were to participate, I would do so only at the local level, getting involved in my community specifically while avoiding any involvement scaled beyond my city.

Brandon Woodruff, who ran for Tennessee's 28th congressional house district seat, called me for lunch at Wally's, a local diner off of McCallie around Orchard Knob. He got chicken fingers, green beans and slaw. I got pancakes, eggs and bacon. We'd just gotten out of a meeting with Councilwoman Demetrius Coonrod for advice and strategies leading up to the August primary. She won against the incumbent of her seat and our primary opponent, Yusuf Hakeem. Mr. Hakeem is a 30 year politician, very well known throughout the community. Any advice we could get from the councilwoman would be taken seriously. At the diner, Brandon and I were energetic, spitting back and forth ideas and ambitions. Serendipity at its finest. At some point, Brandon looked at me and asked me to be his new campaign manager. I accepted.

The race for District 28 was highly competitive. Six candidates were in the race. Five Democrats, one Republican. The district is blue and the Republican nominee has not even been showing up to major debates. Out of five districts in Hamilton County, 28 is the only one with a Democratic majority population. Chattanooga used to have two blue districts, 28 and 29, both were represented by black women up until 2012. That was the year that the Republican majority house redrew district lines so that more Democrats would compete for fewer seats. In other words, Chattanooga went from having two black female representatives to just one. Her name is JoAnne Favors.

Representative Favors is retiring this year, meaning Democrats looking for power had an opportunity to build their political careers. Five Democrats: one spot. Brandon was one of these candidates. Out of the five, he is the youngest, 25-years-old. Young black man born and raised in 28. He has two masters degrees and experience in the state capitol. I believe in him. That said, I saw his weakness as a young candidate. His campaign was the least funded, and until I came along, his team was made up of his relatives. Still, I can see how he is not only serious, he is qualified.

We lost. We took third place. I don't want to bore the void of an audience with the details of our trials, but that's what happened. We took third with our heads held high and about 16% of the vote. We expected about 5,000 voters (based on the 2016 election) but saw around 7,000. After sitting down and thinking about it, we registered and activated so many young voters. I was proud of the work we did. I felt like I did what I came back home to do.

Mr. Yusuf Hakeem won 38% of the vote with the support of Representative Favors. There were times in which I could tell that Brandon wanted to go negative against some of the other candidates. I refused to help in that way. I'm glad he did not. He came up to me recently and said that I'd be proud of him. Now he is working with Yusuf, learning from him. Because we did not go negative, because we lost with honor, because we are seeking knowledge from the established politicians, Hakeem is now teaching Brandon, knowing that he cannot represent 28 forever.

I don't regret tossing the secrecy of my bias for Brandon's campaign. In fact, I take pride in it and have learned from the experience. Though we lost, I don't see it as a failure. In the process, I made a close friend, a brother even. I learned about the political world, not through the eyes of a fly, but through my own two eyes. If anything, I think it has made me a better journalist. At times, I genuinely felt like I was betting my whole career in journalism, the past five years of my life, on a candidate that I honestly believe will change the landscape of Chattanooga.

As for me, my participation has definitely hurt my chances with those exceptional few, but as one door closes, another opens. My time unemployed is finally coming to an end. I will be returning to New York to work in the media industry that has taught me so much. I take these experiences with me and hope to continue to be a public servant as a giver of truth while shaping the communities around me with a heightened conviction.

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