Phil Kim (@philkimtweets), Nevada State Director for the Cory Booker campaign joins us for Part 3 of our Early State Mini-Series to talk about the unique challenges of campaigning in a union-heavy, service-oriented economy like Nevada, and what it means to be an Asian American serving at the state director level of a presidential campaign.
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Transcript (lightly edited for clarity)
[00:00:42] Kevin: Today we are going to talk about Nevada as part of this special Mini-Series we’re doing on the Model Majority Podcasts to profile the four early primary states in the Democratic Primary from the perspective of Asian American staffers working on a presidential campaign. And I am thrilled to welcome back Phil Kim to the podcast, who is serving as the Nevada State Director for Senator Cory Booker’s campaign.
[00:01:10] For those of you who are curious about Phil’s background, go listen to episode 69 of the podcast when he was working at the Democratic National Committee. Phil, welcome back to the Model Majority Podcast today.
[00:01:23] Phil: Kevin, thanks for having me on. I appreciate it. And also shout out to you for continuing to do this work. And giving a platform to all Asian American political folks and have a voice in this process. So I appreciate you.
[00:01:33] Kevin: Thank you. Thank you so much for that. So to get things started, before we dive into the specifics of Nevada and campaigning there, I love to hear the backstory of how you got on the Cory Booker campaign leading its effort in the silver state.
[00:01:49] Phil: Yeah. So quick backstory. Before I joined the Cory Booker campaign, I was serving as the Asian American outreach director at the DNC, and you know, had a pretty good view of all the different candidates who were launching the campaigns and talking about how they want to mobilize different people to get involved with the process.
[00:02:08] Before I was at the DNC, I was in Nevada. And one of the things that gave me a lot of fun memories was learning from the community leaders here, who really took me in as one of their own, mentored me, brought me up. And so it was always something I knew I wanted to do, whether I was at the DNC or our life after that, to come back, support the community, uplift them, and see what I can do with whatever platform or role that I had out to, to be a part of that.
[00:02:33] So when I was looking, surveying the field a little bit, Cory was for me kind of the obvious choice. And the reason I say that is because one, when he launched his campaign, he obviously had a very diverse, a diverse kind of coalition of AAPI voters in New Jersey, and he’s been meaningfully engaged there for a long time.
[00:02:55] He’s been talking about AAPI issues for a long time. And so it was kind of a natural segue where I’m like, look: Cory gave me the opportunity to serve as a state director if I can use that role to be not only the first Asian American state directo at the time of all the presidential campaigns, but coming back to Nevada and do that.
[00:03:11] That’s something that I really, really, I was looking forward to do. So I mean, in a nutshell, he believes in giving people who are AAPI a seat at the table and decision making opportunities. And I’m just very grateful to be working for him right now in Nevada.
[00:03:28] Kevin: And I think it shows, the work that he’s been doing in the Asian American community showed pretty early on in the campaign where I think he got more contributions to his campaign from AAPI folks than any of the candidates running at the time.
[00:03:42] This was like much earlier in the cycle, which of course still included Senator Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang, and all these other folks, you know, from Nevada and New Jersey, his home state. So I think that kind of spoke a lot to the work that he’s been doing before, which you are certainly continuing to do.
[00:04:00] And to switch gear into the state itself. Obviously, if I remember correctly, when we last chatted you got your start volunteering in Nevada back in like the 2012 reelection cycle. So you know the state pretty well. Now you’re back in there in a different role, at a different level. And of course everyone knows Nevada from like the Vegas stories and the casinos.
[00:04:28] But from your perspective, as an experienced political operative and a political nerd, what is special or kind of interesting about Nevada, the state.
[00:04:42] Phil: I remember that conversation. I remember it was about volunteering and knocking on doors and Washoe, and then realizing: Oh, this can be a job. And here we are.
[00:04:49] It’s kinda surreal. But, so just a quick primer on Nevada. You know, obviously one of the first four early states that cast ballots or caucus for this primary. We’re voting on February 22nd, so we’re third in line. One of the things that I think is very valuable about Nevada is that it has an electorate that reflects the diversity of the United States.
[00:05:10] It’s a majority minority state. Also in this last session, we saw the first ever in the history of the US a female majority in the state assembly, all of which are things to be celebrated. One of the things I’d like to point out about Nevada too, and I think this is personal to me in some ways.
[00:05:27] It’s a labor state. Lots of community organizations and unions advocate for workers. We can talk about that a little bit more later on. They have a lot of political muscle here, but on a personal level, it’s not theoretical for me, thinking about people like my dad who kind of puts his body on the line for the work every single day.
[00:05:45] One of the things that’s interesting, one of the common talking points you’re gonna hear from presidential campaigns is that the AAPI community is the fastest growing electorate. And that’s definitely true here in Nevada as well. However, when you look at the representation in the state legislature, it wasn’t until this last assembly that we are able to appoint Rochelle Nguyen to be the first ever AAPI assembly woman. And Selena Torres also identifies as Pacific Islander. And with the help of community leaders who are lobbying to get these folks in positions and decision making power, they were able to start and establish the first ever AAPI legislative caucus.
[00:06:28] People like Evan Louie and others are driving that, which is fantastic. And I think what you’re seeing is that, the AAPI community here as well, are I’d say about 10% of the votes. It’s pretty significant. It’s not just the margin of victory at this point. They’re getting smarter, they’re organizing more, they are understanding how this process works, and so they realized this is not about doing a quick photo with the presidential or anymore. This is about organizing and mobilizing and building outlets and levers to make a difference in this process. And of course in the legislative session down the road. And that’ll be in 2021.
[00:07:00] Kevin: Interesting. I mean, one thing that I found interesting about Nevada from more like a national, primary process angle is that it actually often gets overlooked, at least from the media’s perspective, like how much attention they pay to it. Obviously everyone’s paying attention to Iowa, Iowa, Iowa, and then you have New Hampshire being their first primary stay, live free or die, and then all of a sudden people are like: Oh, and then there’s South Carolina, which you know, obviously objectively is the most populous of the four early states, but Nevada’s going third, and that’s a pretty significant thing you would think, but somehow it just gets overlooked from time to time. Why do you think that is?
[00:07:43] Phil: Well, I’ll give the quick, quick history lesson there. By the way, great, great slogan New Hampshire. I think that Nevada’s actually more appropriate: Battle Born State.
[00:07:51] You’ve gotta fight to earn every single vote here. One thing that I would touch on though is in 2008 was the first time Harry Reid helped to move Nevada, as a state, from voting kind of later in the line up to a caucus process, and they were able to move into third. So it’s actually relatively new.
[00:08:09] So people, I think, kind of forget that this, you know, Nevada is actually…this is only the third ever, I think, contested primary since 2008. So this is actually still new to Nevadans and people are getting used to it. And Nevada, I will say is very, very service oriented, service industry oriented state.
[00:08:28] So a lot of people are working around the clock, have multiple jobs or working late night shifts. And so what is a challenge here in the state is that people are busy and so they’re not as actively involved in the politics. You really have to meet people where they are, to get them engaged, and I think all of these kinds of different things kind of play a factor into Nevada not being talked about enough.
[00:08:47] One thing I will also say is you will know who knows the state by how they pronounce it. Sometimes you hear NevAAda, you know that this is new to them. It’s Nevada, and that’s important for everybody who comes to organize here.
[00:08:58] Kevin: That’s right. I remember the former first lady, Michelle Obama, when she was campaigning there in 2007, I think, said the state’s name differently or wrong and got a lot of pushback and we were like: whoa.
[00:09:14] Let’s remember to make sure everyone says Nevada every time. And you touched on this a little bit, but let’s get into a little more depth on the unique challenges of campaigning and organizing in Nevada. Obviously, you mentioned the service industry being a reason why, you know, folks just don’t have enough time or energy during the day to focus on all of these political stuff.
[00:09:40] You mentioned the unions. And all these sorts of things. What do you think are some of the unique challenges to winning Nevada or doing well in Nevada?
[00:09:49] Phil: Yeah, I think there are two levels to that. The first we’ll go into like the kind of the campaign tactics side of it. You know, every campaign does call time.
[00:09:57] And traditionally that’s always been something that’s been five to nine, right when people get out of work, try to catch them before, during, or right after dinner and have a conversation with them, recruit them to volunteer, et cetera. But because this is a shift economy, a lot of folks are working, again, like I mentioned earlier, around the clock, and people are doing like 12 to eight, three to three to noon or whatever it might be.
[00:10:18] And so as we kind of continue to reach out to people and get to know them, it’s being very intentional, honestly, about when to contact them and make sure that they’re rested and they’re able to have a conversation with you, and it’s all hours throughout the day. So being mindful of people who are busy.
[00:10:36] Nevada people work really, really hard. And they kind of have to. So it’s important to make sure that you’re accommodating them. I think taking a step back and seeing it from a broader perspective, though, this is something that I think they highlighted in the December debate as well. Nevada is a very, very, very diverse state.
[00:10:50] It’s built by immigrants. There are people who are coming from different states, new families, new Americans, et cetera. And these are communities that traditionally have not been afforded the privilege to engage in the process, whether they’ve been excluded or they just don’t have the capacity to because they’re working so much.
[00:11:06] And what does that mean? It’s also, you know, trying to get donations to get Cory on that stage. Whether it’s just getting people to give some of their time because it’s new to them. At the end of the day, it’s meeting them where they are. And what we know in the AAPI community as just organizing, it’s what people are calling relational organizing.
[00:11:25] It’s building trust. It’s meeting people in a coffee shop and really just presenting, why you’re doing this work for the community and making sure that you’re trying to talk to their family, their friends, and get them involved because this is new for them. So this is not just an engagement opportunity. It’s an educational opportunity.
[00:11:41] Kevin: Hmm. Interesting. So follow up on that. So given the service industry way of organizing workers, do you have like odd called time blocks that kind of help your organizers facilitate? Do you have like early afternoon ones to catch people before they go to their evening shift or even like midnight or like 2:00 AM call times?
[00:12:04] So I think
[00:12:04] Phil: So I think that’s illegal, I don’t think we are allowed to call them that late.
[00:12:09] But I will say that we are hyper localized in terms of our strategy. You know, what works in downtown Las Vegas might not be the same that works in Summerlin. What might be successful in North Las Vegas might be different than something in the rurals or Washoe, right? And so we really lean on the leadership of our organizing team to figure out what works best for them.
[00:12:31] And then they’re able to then strategize what call times or DVC blocks or, sorry, direct voter contact practices work best in their specific turfs.
[00:12:38] Kevin: Got it. Makes sense. So kind of switching gear to your job, specifically as a state director, and I love to just kind of peel back the curtain a bit and have people understand like number one, what is the job and what if anything is there a typical day from dawn to dusk so I can get a day of like, what does Phil Kim’s life look like right now?
[00:13:03] Phil: Yeah, so I mean, at its core where we are in the campaign, it’s just coordinating day to day with our staff to implement our Get Out The Caucus operation in February.
[00:13:14] We use a lot of acronyms. GOTC is what we use here. I’ll go into that in a second. But internally, that’s how we kind of structure our day. And that obviously means a lot of meetings and phone calls, both in state and nationally and then externally meeting with a lot of local stakeholders.
[00:13:32] And so I think one thing that we truly, truly pride ourselves on in this campaign, and the brand that we’ve built actually is that, you know, obviously we’re here to be competitive and we want Cory to win the state. But I think the philosophy that also drives that is that we want to see ourselves as true community partners and be a part of the people that we seek to organize.
[00:13:51] And so how do we uplift their issues? How do we uplift their work and how can they use our campaign in service of what matters to local Nevadans. And that’s something that we truly, truly value here. Taking a step back, I think, you know, growing up in this work, I started in field, volunteering like we talked about.
[00:14:07] Came back in Nevada, went back into field management, political, data, GOTV but I was always focused on one specific task or one specific departmental goal. I think in this role, what’s different being a state director that I’m leaning in across all the departments and making sure that we’re a team that’s firing on all cylinders and that’s it’s a pretty ambitious experience but something that I’ve been grateful for and humble by for sure. We have a really great team, so I’m very thankful for that.
[00:14:32] Sounds like
[00:14:32] Kevin: Sounds like you’re more like into like general management almost right? If you’re in like a company context, you’re like the GM of Nevada.
[00:14:41] Phil: Yeah I guess you can say that and you know it’s not lost on me that you know as someone who identifies as AAPI, or who happens to be AAPI, these spaces aren’t really reserved for people like us, except for Cory and his leadership. But one of the things that I do appreciate about this role, I do have some space to be creative as well. And so one of the things I do want to point out is even as a state director, this AAPI community is near and dear to my heart, and I will say that until people get tired of hearing of it.
[00:15:11] But recently when Cory was in town this last week on Wednesday actually, we were able to launch our AAPIs for Cory here in state. But what made it special was that, I think ever, we hosted our first ever in campaign I think ever in presidential campaign history, a bilingual Tagalog training. There’s a huge Filipino community who had a labor background or service background here. And the opportunity to create that space for people to come and they know that you’re doing it with the right intentions was really meaningful.
[00:15:44] So we kicked that off on Wednesday and that was fantastic. And kind of digging into that a little bit, one fun story there is that we have a superstar volunteer from Hillary. She was the AAPI Clark County chair at the time. She joined us from the Hillary team. We started to combine something we talked about the last time and when I was at the DNC we’re able to support her for the midterms and the way that she says it in her words. The combine went from a small dedicated group like less than 10 people to then going national because of DNC support. And then that same leader who helped us launch that during Hillary was the one who then led our Tagalog training when we launched our AAPI for Cory in state.
[00:16:26] It’s pretty incredible almost emotionally when you think about that to be able to create these spaces, and have you know to create a space to be intentional about this as well. I don’t know that, I don’t know how other campaigns operate in this space obviously but there’s something that I have a great team with me here. We have an Allen Chen, Chaska and others who have been really intentional about helping us to build this from the ground up. Linh Nguyen, our national coalitions director. So I’ve just got to shout them out real quick.
[00:16:53] Kevin: Right. That is really huge because I think one of the things that is I guess superficially difficult for other campaigns to reach out to AAPI folks in an intentional way, like you said, I really liked the way you put that, do it with intentionality, is how do you really localize all of this political knowhow for a community that has been historically ignored. And then you know to really contextualize everything for their schedule, for their life, for their current situation, but ultimately for their language, which is super super important. And once you get into that mode, the dividend is also huge right? And like you know you’re doing this to win and you’re doing this to lift the community, but I think the dividend is going to be paid hopefully pretty soon too.
[00:17:41] And this kind of dives in pretty well with my next question which you already touched on a little bit, which was you know being an Asian American political staffer and at the senior level now as well, has your identity in some way impacted the way you approach campaigning or doing political work, even in the way you hire and lead your staff and interact with local voters and volunteers?
[00:18:11] Phil: Yeah, one 1000%. 1000%. I think, first and foremost, I always see myself from the community first and I happened to be doing political work is how I approached this. And so when I think about whether it was at the DNC or those for the Hillary campaign or even when I was at the Obama campaign as an organizer, you know, what is my experience going to be like as an AAPI staffer. And most often when you ask that question what you’re going to hear is like: Oh I don’t really see a lot of other AAPI staffers or this feels kind of lonely.
[00:18:41] And it’s true. It’s just really aren’t that many of us. And I’m sure you and Tony experienced something similar on the ground, when you were organizing as well. And so for me it was truly truly truly important. And this is not just my value. This is actually supporting Senator Booker’s core value.
[00:18:55] One of his core values is: be inclusive across all levels. And so when I have the opportunity, being in this role allows me to have some meaningful say actually. But when I had the opportunity to create space for the up and coming talent, the rising stars, I want to make sure they’re included and have the experience that we hoped we had coming up in this work.
[00:19:17] So when we think about young AAPI staffers like Cheska Perez who started as a fellow with the Hillary campaign and one of the first people I ever met when I joined the Nevada team back in 2015. She became our state data director here, helped us make really important decisions about where we want to prioritize our time and GVC efforts.
[00:19:37] And she is super talented. Someday I think maybe we will all be working for her. She moved to HQ in Newark and she’s now coordinating analytics for all of our early states. And so like helping to lift her up. Or Allen Chen who grew up in California, Southern California AAPI politics just really crushed it there, helped Gil Cisneros get elected, and like when I talked with him I knew that there’s somebody who needed to have on our team. And he’ll tell you I bent over backwards to accommodate him and make sure that he would join us, because I knew he was going to be a rising star. He’s joined our team and he’s made our operations so smooth. And I’m so grateful for people who are smarter than me, more talented than me, uplifting this work.
[00:20:19] And so the the kind of the moment where I step back and think about this too is like, I think you and I both know that AAPIs for a long time has been pushed into traditional spaces. And what that means to me, that’s business, law, medicine. Nothing wrong with that at all. A lot of my friends who are succeeding in those fields, but I obviously chose to take a different path and you and I did that. And we’re seeing growth in spaces like education and entertainment, which is fantastic. Now ultimately politics and on a personal level that means a lot to me. And to continue to help feed into that and be a small part of that is something I hope to do for the rest of my career.
[00:20:55] Kevin: Absolutely. Well you’re certainly doing great work for our community. I think one of the most important things is to pay it forward however we can right? Even with the little traction or platform that we got here, we want to keep on growing it and give more and more people that opportunity, younger folks and maybe even older folks, who want to make a switch. “I want to get in on this thing.” It’s honestly never too late.
[00:21:21] And the last subject I want to touch on with you and this is a bit of a personal pet interest of mine, which is the tech side of campaigning. Obviously when I first started it was mostly just a lot of clipboards and large envelopes. We did have Google Map but we had to like print them out from the printers, so the printers are always jammed. And that’s how we did a field. Of course technology has evolved drastically. I’d love to hear your thoughts on some of the tech that you use day in and day out now to do your job well, and kind of contrast that even with the tools that you used to use in previous cycles like kind of how quickly if at all has that side of the things evolved.
[00:22:05] Phil: To your point I mean we still do some of the clipboarding and printing out of course, but I mean that’s definitely old school. And I think everyone should get a taste of that experience because you guys all paved the way for the rest of us. It definitely has changed drastically since 2012. I remember actually very distinctly, we tried to create a platform called Dashboard for the Obama campaign and the reelection in 2012. In short it was like an in house version of Facebook to empower volunteers or online groups.
[00:22:35] Anyway so right now, where we’ve come, you know digital organizing is not just a tactic anymore. Obviously it’s a core part of our organizing philosophy. How do we meet people where they are, create community online and then bring them into our offices as well so we can meet them in person. And a simple text can turn into a volunteer who become the precinct captain who then helps you when your caucus, which is an incredible thought.
[00:22:59] One of the things I appreciate about technology obviously is being able to do outreach at scale. The amount of people that we can reach has increased exponentially to say the least and that’s you know right now I guess it’s bread and butter tactics but things like using Hustle, P2P peer-to-peer SMS texting, creating Slack channels for our volunteers to have some unity, being able to invest in online digital ads on Facebook, having conversations with people online on Twitters, you know just having conversations and being able to convert them into our volunteers.
[00:23:31] And we try to be more creative as well with some of our constituency groups. Whether that means having Google Hangouts with our precinct captains, so we can give them the opportunity to do this online instead of having to drive 15 minutes during the busy day. And then one quick shout out to our national team, people like Kim hall and Gabrielle Fink and Linh Nguyen who helped to drive this, we have now created a website where people can learn more about our AAPI program and our stances from the Cory campaign.
[00:23:58] So I’m just gonna quickly plug corybooker.com/aapi please go check it out. And then of course if you like our platforms, if you like what you’re reading and support the work to build the AAPI community through our campaign, you can obviously donate, you can sign up to volunteer, or if you want to just get up there on your phone, just text AAPI to 40203, and it can be a part of our SMS program.
[00:24:22] Kevin: Love it. Love it. It’s really important I think that each candidate has a dedicated platform to speak to our community. And it sounds like the Booker campaign is very much doing that.
[00:24:34] And Phil, really fun and always informative talking to you. Thank you for giving us a kind of the rundown of what’s interesting and special about Nevada. You’re the best person to talk about that. And I know you already gave your plug, but I want to give you one more plug chance. How can people follow you? How can people follow what’s going on with Phil Kim?
[00:24:54] Phil: So you can follow me on Twitter. It’s @philkimtweets. I post most of my content there as well as my Instagram. It’s just @philgrams. I wish I could be more creative but Instagram @philgrams, Twitter @philkimtweets. Follow me. Thank you for the shoutout Kevin. I appreciate that. And hopefully we can get you all engaged.
[00:25:17] Kevin: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time today Phil.
[00:25:18] Phil: Thanks Kevin. Appreciate it.