Evergreen Magazine

On the Road Again

by Ann Mary Quarandillo

Happy Trails Illustration
Illustration by Drew Christie ’07.

Bob Funk in Montana

Campaign consultant Bob
Funk got his start in
Montana and is still at
home at Helena’s State
Capitol building.

In June, Bob Funk ’09 was in Montana, serving as campaign manager for Jesse Laslovich, who was running in the primary for state attorney general. By July, he was traveling back and forth between Washington D.C., and St. Petersburg, Fla., where he helped jump start a U.S. congressional race as deputy campaign manager and press secretary. After a short breather in Virginia, he’s now working on multiple campaigns as a consultant with Hilltop Public Solutions, a national campaign strategy firm.

He’s 25 years old. This is the sixth campaign season he’s worked behind the scenes for local, state and national races. Behind that wavy red-blonde hair and cherubic smile is a strategic and determined communicator who has fought some of the most unlikely election battles in the past five years—and won.

All over Washington, and all over the country, as this hard-fought campaign season draws to a close, Greeners are working behind the scenes for candidates across the political spectrum. Funk started out where most campaign workers start—doing field work on local campaigns while he was still in high school. He began working for the Montana Democratic Party at 19, and continued his work while pursuing his Evergreen degree.

“I wanted to take time and work for a candidate, and in summer 2008 became operations manager and regional field director for U.S. Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colo.). He was the first openly gay man to be elected to a first term in Congress, and I got to be part of that.”

That fall, he went from Colorado to one of the most hotly contested races in the country, traveling to Alaska to become a field representative for Senator Mark Begich in his challenge to the longest serving Republican Senator, Ted Stevens. “The race was so close, it took more than two weeks before we found out we’d won,” he says. Funk flew to Nome to monitor the ballot counting, and celebrated his birthday and the victory on the same day. He returned to Evergreen in November, finished his degree, and it was on to Washington, D.C., where he took a short break from campaign work, spending two years as executive assistant to Montana Senator Jon Tester.

But by 2011, Funk was ready to get back into the fray, and he hasn’t stopped since. He’s found that his youth is an asset, because campaigning is more than rallies and streamers—it’s long, hard work. Yes, there’s lots of travel, but you’re not jet- setting all over the place with fancy people in suits. “The biggest misconception people have about running a campaign is that it’s glamorous. It’s not like they show it in the movies,” he says. Campaigns are full of nonstop grunt work, for the top dog to the newest intern, from knocking on doors, making phone calls, asking people if they’ve decided who to vote for, then if it’s for your candidate, making sure they get out and vote. “It’s really long hours with lots of heartache and pain for small victories, and hopefully that ultimate victory,” he says.

In a typical week, he will work on a wide variety of campaign tasks, from communications to management, mundane things like making sure the website is running correctly, that the email system is up to date, checking on yard sign deliveries and stuffing envelopes. When he’s getting a campaign built up, he and his staff will be in the office for 18 to 20 hours per day. Then, of course, there’s fundraising, which Funk admits is hard to deal with, but in this day and age, running for office requires resources to pay for the mailings, the TV ads, the Web presence, banners and yard signs. “Name recognition is important, but voters have to associate the name with something,” he explains. “That’s where mail is still one of the best ways to win an election, and TV is still very effective.”

It seems old-fashioned, but for now, says Funk, these tactics still work. Still, social media is making a huge impact. “Facebook is one of the best ways to reach people, but they’re usually people who are already voting for your candidate,” he explains. “The Internet is a huge forum to galvanize your supporters. It’s not the place to move undecided voters, but changes the way you can talk with your supporters and get them out to vote, to volunteer, and expand your message.”

Bob Funk outside the Ancorage field office

Bob Funk braving the chill outside the Anchorage field
office of Senator Mark Begich, who he helped to defeat
longtime Alaska Senator Ted Stevens in 2008.

Although the ability to target people based on their browsing history allows communicators like him to tailor messages based on their interests and reach more potential voters, Funk also believes it contributes to the increasing divide among voters. “Facebook, Google and other sites are designed so that people only see what they want to see—they’re targeted to you, so it’s very separating,” he says. “Our worlds are more and more introverted—we see what already fits our worldview.” He finds that speaks volumes about why our political systems are so polarized—the other side becomes the enemy. “I know people who won’t have dinner with people who have differing political views.”

Funk was born into politics, and grew up watching PBS NewsHour and having conversations about politics over dinner with his parents and sister, Laura, a 2011 Evergreen graduate. His father, Jerry, worked as a union representative all over the globe, and served in President Jimmy Carter’s administration as chief advisor for national security for Africa, where the family lived until Bob was 9. His mother, Moffie, a teacher, grew up overseas. It was her work that galvanized his entry into the political fray.

“When I saw unions and public employees being so viciously and unabashedly attacked, that’s what drove me to get back into the cycle because that is frightening,” he says. “My mom is a teacher, I come from a long line of teachers. Unions are the backbone of this country and of much of the progress in this country. It scared me, made me beyond angry. I feel like we’ve got to fight back on that.”

Even though he is passionate about these issues, Funk refuses to let himself fall into the trap of hyper-partisanship. Because there are few people willing to live the unstable lifestyle of a campaign staff, it is a small and very interlinked profession, and relationships are critical. “By the end of this cycle, I’ll have been working in four or five different locations, and that’s pretty tame for a two-year cycle. When I meet people working on a campaign, we almost always have a close connection and know many of the same people,” Funk says. “People willing to work these kind of hours—you end up knowing each other. Your life is constantly handing out cards, meeting people and building relationships, and just like in any profession, that’s how you make opportunities to do what you love.”

As hard as the work is for him and his colleagues, Funk admires those who are willing to run even more. “You think your life is a nightmare of no sleep, no stability, no social life, but for candidates and their families—it’s personal, it’s their whole life, and the result of the election has a huge impact,” he explains. “My work is tough work, but it’s not my life like it is theirs. How candidates get through an election and keep their family together is incredible. And it’s my job to keep a positive tone—because every day there is a crisis, but you need to keep that out of the candidate's world. They have enough to worry about.”

And does Funk ever think about running for office himself? He finds it more satisfying to work on multiple campaigns where he can make a difference in lots of areas. “I love my work, and Evergreen showed me you should do something you love. But it also taught me to be pragmatic—to follow your ideals, but work with pragmatism,” he says. “This field is full of people who care about policy and about the results of their work, and that’s a beautiful thing—to see that many hard-working people get involved in this because they care.”