Democratic campaign vets charge $5K to teach political trade and to find you work as unpaid interns

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Two veterans of Barack Obama’s White House runs are offering political campaigners a chance to learn everything they know — for $5,000 per person – and then spend five weeks as an unpaid campaign intern somewhere in the U.S.

The program, by Obama campaign planners Jeremy Bird and Mitch Stewart, is raising eyebrows with Democratic operatives and progressive activists, writes Evan McMorris-Santoro of BuzzFeed Politics.

The $5,000 package promises access to the expertise behind Obama’s successful presidential bids, as well as hands-on experience on a Democratic campaign.

Operated by 270 Strategies, Bird and Stewart’s consulting firm, the program essentially gives paying customers volunteer roles on Democratic campaigns, something atypical in campaign training circles.

Some Democrats say it sets a risky precedent.

“270/360 Training Intensive” is scheduled to begin in September.

According to its website, the six-week program is made up of five days of “intensive” training at 270’s Chicago headquarters, which feature Stewart and Bird and a group of “architects of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns,” leading into five weeks as a volunteer on an “an important Democratic campaign in the United States.”

The five-day training sessions with Bird and Stewart costs $3,500, with another $1,500 if a student wants five weeks of additional work experience. The costs are far above the going rate for campaign training, critics say.

“It’s deeply concerning that leaders in our party are launching a ‘pay to play’ system for would-be campaign staff,” said an unnamed Democratic political veteran. “As Democrats, we should be working together to eliminate workforce barriers — such as unpaid internships — rather starting programs that further discourage participation in electoral work.”

This new kind of campaign training gives particular emphasis on training political organizers worldwide, giving them the skillset to run campaigns in their home countries

Lynda Tran, communications strategist for 270, said the $5,000 fee is not for all participants, and “full scholarships and discounts” are available on a “case-by-case basis.”

Tran said the 270 training looks beyond the domestic political market.

“Our vision for the 270/360 Training Intensive is to share best practices we’ve learned across grassroots organizing, digital strategies, data analytics, and communications with would-be campaigners from around the world,” she said. “We’ve designed a program that will deliver value for campaign organizers whether they are able to join us for the five-day skills-building session in Chicago or as part of the full six-week program with its corresponding hands-on application and ongoing professional mentorship and development.”

“Our hope is that the organizers who take part in the program will take the lessons they learn back to their communities and apply them in a way that helps change the world for the better,” Tran added.

The training offered sounds similar to existing programs for campaign training — often without upfront costs.

Immersive training has been a part of Democratic politics for decades. Nearly every election cycle has dozens of volunteers working—with little or no pay — to gain training experience for future progressive campaigns, labor unions, Democratic committees and independent consulting firms.

Participants often benefit with a small stipend and credentials for their resumes, as well as access to a network of operatives essential to a career in politics. Campaigns get free (or really cheap) labor and trainers build a team of experienced organizers for advocacy fights and future political efforts. Democrats on all levels call it a win-win-win.

The emphasis on foreign students is slightly unusual for campaign training. Generally, the focus is on building domestic political workforce ready for everything from managing budgets, creating canvassing lists for doorknockers and responding to reporters after a candidate’s blunder.

Work experience through 270 is no different.

Participants will focus on campaign staples, such as get out the vote efforts for assigned campaigns, including staffing phone banks, knocking on doors, and online efforts – the grunt work that wins a campaign and is standard for immersion trainees.

Former progressive field staffer Mikey Franklin, who seeks to end the longtime D.C. practice of unpaid internships, believes asking volunteers to pay goes against progressive principles.

“It’s a basic principle that people should work for pay; they shouldn’t pay to work,” Franklin told BuzzFeed. “It’s shameful that 270 Strategies are throwing their progressive values out of the window by charging $5,000 for a 5-day training and an unpaid internship. How will we win for the 99% if we only recruit from the 1%?”

Traditional Democratic training professionals were not as hard on the program, but many did note that trainees could the same experience for little or no money on Election Day. What makes 270 different is the presence of Bird and Stewart, considered the best. Professionals are quick to praise what can be learned from them.

“I don’t think there’s any question that a person who matriculated in their program would have made a worthwhile investment,” said Chicago-based Democracy Partners consultant Robert Creamer, a leader in the modern Democratic training system. “Can you get a similar experience in a situation where you didn’t part with that much money? Probably.”

Democracy Partners also offers immersive trainings, but trainees do not pay to work on assigned campaigns.

“The pitch is if you want to come work your ass off for the x number of weeks then we’ll give you the best training you can get,” Creamer said.

Another prominent staffer at a progressive campaign training firm said 270 those costs are not right.

“The idea of paying to be a volunteer,” the official said. “I don’t entirely understand why they thought that was the best approach.”

“I think it’s a terrible idea.”

Both progressives and Democrats are not thinking highly of 270’s program, writes McMorris-Santoro.

“The chatter is, ‘I don’t think that’s a great approach,’” he added.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.