During his first summer after graduation, while canvassing door-to-door for President Obama’s campaign in Colorado, Dave Marsh ’12 encountered a man who demanded to know the purpose of his visit. When Marsh told him, the man promptly reached back and pulled out a large handgun, cocked it, and pointed it directly at Marsh’s head.
Welcome to life outside the Purple Bubble.
Two years removed from graduation, Marsh, a political science major from New York City, has translated his deep-rooted love of politics into work on three campaigns. After stints in New York, Colorado, and DC, he returned to Massachusetts last spring to help former Medicare Director Don Berwick in his bid for governor. Crisscrossing the state in his beat-up Honda Civic, Marsh spent long hours meeting with issue experts, crafting policies, answering voters’ questions, and taking exactly three days off between April and Berwick’s loss to fellow Democrat Martha Coakley ’75 in the September primary. I caught up with Marsh last summer in his Cambridge apartment to learn about the ups and downs of his education in real-world politics.
It’s been a year and a half since you left Williams. What has the road looked like since graduation?
Long, with many dark nights! After Williams I worked on a New York congressional race. Then I got a job with the Obama campaign and spent five months working in Colorado.
After that, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. I got a call from my boss on the Obama campaign asking if I’d heard of Don Berwick. I told him no, and he said, “He’s considering running for Governor in Massachusetts and someone knows someone who knows the campaign manager.”
Long story short, I was connected with the Berwick family. I went to Boston, interviewed for the job, and they said, “Come on board and be the second person on our team.” That was 13 months ago and since then the team has grown to a 27-person organization.
So what exactly does a policy director do?
Help craft the message of the campaign. I recruit and organize issue experts into committees to help create a coherent set of policies our candidate can get behind. Once we have policies in place, I write them up, post them on the campaign website and answer questions on them.
I do lots of other stuff too. The thing about campaigns is that there aren’t clearly defined roles. I double as Don’s driver, work on the fundraising team, and used to be the person who ran our Twitter account. It’s cool because I get to try out a lot of things and see where my passion lies, and maybe less importantly where my talent lies.
When did you realize you had a passion for politics?
I don’t have one specific moment, but I have three theories.
One is 9/11. I can clearly remember walking home with my mom from school, and my 11-year-old brain kept asking, “Why would anyone hate us?” That’s a question that stuck with me for a very long time.
The second was that I went to an international high school where Americans were in the minority. This was during the Iraq war, and people would ask me to defend my government’s actions. I didn’t have any good answers. The more you are associated with something that you don’t understand, the more you want to learn about it.
The third event is when I stopped playing sports. Sports were really my biggest passion, but I wasn’t good enough to go anywhere with them. Politics, even though it’s kind of twisted to admit this, is the grown-up version of sports in that there can only be one winner in an election.
Also, I’ve learned that while government’s not the finest instrument to achieve good, it’s the only thing that impacts absolutely everybody. When bad people control government, bad things can happen. But when it’s done responsibly, it can be a really good thing and fill a void that nothing else can.
You haven’t had a day off in 72 days. What do some of the tougher days look like?
There’s a lot of traveling. There are 351 municipalities in Massachusetts—I didn’t know that before, but now I do. They all have voters, and they all have events.
It requires a lot of individualized attention, and some people are easier to work with than others.
“Lots of ups and downs” is the best way to characterize life on a campaign. There are some moments where I think everything’s great, and others (often in the same hour) where I’m like, “Oh my God, we’re going to get blown out.” The emotional intensity can be harder to deal with than the physical lack of sleep and the work and bad food.
What are some of those moments where you say “Hey, this is totally worth it!”?
When a candidate gets up in front of a really big room full of people and says something that you wrote and people get on their feet and cheer. There’s nothing cooler than that.
How did Williams prepare you for the challenges you face every day?
Williams was instrumental in my transition from thinking of politics as an abstract idea to something tangible that affects real lives.
There was a local issue in Williamstown where the town was trying to decide whether to increase property taxes in order to raise money for the local high school, a school where I volunteered as a tutor. I made it my mission to try and make the override happen. I organized letter-to-the-editor and phone campaigns and led meetings with the local PTAs. We won the vote two-to-one. That got my head going.
Despite the fact that you were a top political science student, you didn’t have a job lined up until well into the spring. Was it hard to resist the temptation to apply for a more traditional job?
Oh yeah. There was this wave of my friends who were all getting these insanely high-paying jobs, and they no longer had to worry about what they were going to do next.
It was definitely gut-check time for me. I knew I didn’t want to do that, but there was an appeal. For some reason I was able to avoid that, which I’m really grateful for. Obviously, money’s good, and I’m in a position where I’m lucky enough not to need to make a ton of money yet, but resisting that path has allowed me to have a really good and really interesting two years.
Any closing thoughts or pieces of advice?
Before you go down any path, make sure you have an understanding of your own reasons for doing it. If it’s because you’re afraid of the unknown, I’d say hold out for a little while. The number of opportunities that you can seize when you go in and start doing something, even if it’s not well paved before you, is really cool.