Yale Law School graduate Ravi Gupta was sitting on the floor of the Phoenix Convention Center in jeans and sneakers on Friday morning, eyes locked on his laptop. Across the room were rows and rows of empty chairs and tables.
"I didn't even notice," he replied when asked why he chose the floor. He smiled and added, "If you want to write that I'm young, I'm not going to argue with that."
Gupta, 36, is fairly young — but that's the whole point. He's hosting a boot camp in Phoenix this weekend designed for young progressives like him whose hearts are in the art of the political campaign.
The former middle school principal who also worked on Barack Obama's presidential campaign co-founded a national political organization, Arena, after the 2016 election to capitalize on the energy of young, anti-Trump progressives. Disillusioned the day after the election, he said, he called a bunch of friends "and just started asking, what can we do to help turn this ocean liner of a democracy around?"
Since then, the donation- and venture capitalist-funded group has poured money into state and national Democratic campaigns across the country. This year, its efforts have focused on holding boot-camp-like trainings in various cities for aspiring campaign staffers. The goal is to build an army of skilled progressives who can help turn states like Arizona blue.
This weekend's Phoenix boot camp, held from Thursday to Monday at the downtown Phoenix Convention Center, is the fifth such training in Arena's national tour. Earlier this year, the group hit other 2020 hot spots, including Des Moines, Iowa, and Houston.
Gupta said he and his co-founders, Kate Catherall (a Democratic strategist) and Swati Mylavarapu (a venture capitalist who helped fund Arena), chose Phoenix for the final training in part because they're determined that "the state is flippable." Arizona has historically leaned Republican in both presidential and state government elections, but a growing, diversifying electorate has led some national polls to identify it as a "purple" state to watch in 2020.
But in order for Democrats to make any headway, they'll have to solve a problem that's been inherent in Democratic campaigns for years: disorganization. It's a problem that Republicans have largely avoided — to their great benefit, according to Gupta.
"Somebody once said to me, 'If the Republicans are a marching band, Democrats at our best are jazz,'" he said. "There’s this loose network of people who talk to each other, but it’s not an organized effort to keep people in the work and identify the most talented and promising among them. So that’s what we’re trying to build here.”
This weekend's training is designed with that at the forefront, from dividing participants into "tracks" based on what kind of work they'd like to do, to helping participants sign up at the end for Arena Careers, a massive database for recruitment and the job search that is already used by more than 100 employers.
It's "like a LinkedIn for politics," Gupta said.
There's also a campaign simulation throughout the weekend, which places participants into groups and gives them mock candidate and district profiles, around which they're expected to build out detailed plans for communications, budget, and outreach.
It's "maybe 5 percent as intense" as real campaign work, according to Gupta, but it's designed to give attendees a taste of what the work is like — and weed out anyone who isn't up for the job.
"If somebody gets turned off by the intensity of the Arena Cup, they are definitely not going to stand a chance on a campaign," Gupta said.
Some 36 percent of the 250 participants this weekend are from Arizona, while others traveled from elsewhere. One Arizona participant, Vianey Olivarria, Chispa Arizona communications director, hopes the training will help her and others gain the knowledge needed to diversify campaign leadership.
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"Latinos in general [and] people of color, they tend to get boxed into a certain category, like Latino outreach," she said. "The next time I join a campaign, I want to make sure I’m in a role where I can look at resources in a budget and know where things should go."
For others, the training is a jumping-off point that they hope will get them the network and skills they need to get started in politics. Amber Rivera, a 22-year-old junior at Arizona State University, is the campaign manager for Arizona Representative Jennifer Longdon — but this is the first time she's ever worked on a campaign.
"I've never raised a dollar in my life," she said. "I'm ready for it."
In Arizona, Senator Martha McSally's seat will be up for re-election in 2020, as will all nine U.S. House seats, four of which are held by Republicans. Besides Bill Clinton in 1996, Arizona has voted for Republican presidential candidates in every election since 1952. Polls so far for 2020 indicate the state's 11 electoral votes could go either way.