This year, HeadCount is taking a deeper look at the people who make and report the news in Washington, D.C. — and we’re talking to them about (what else?) music. It turns out that the people who shape the political landscape are as passionate about music as they are about politics. We’re talking to them about the bands they love and the shows that changed their lives.
Today, we'll hear from Andy Sere, a GOP political consultant, ad man, and known Phish fan. Already a veteran of multiple political campaigns at 30, Sere offers advice to young people looking to enter politics, and reflects on the value of failure in learning the ropes.
HeadCount: So when was your first Phish show, and when did you really get into seeing shows?
Sere: My first show was 12/31/02 at Madison Square Garden — their first show after hiatus. I kind of got into Phish during high school in Houston right after they went on hiatus in 2000 — so I was already really into the band by the time I saw my first show. It was a spectacle, but not that great of a show, and didn't really live up to my expectations. My next show at Greensboro Coliseum 3/1/03 was when it all really hit me. Great show. I was hooked on touring whenever I could find the time.
How did you find the band in the very first place?
When I got to high school there was a group of guys already listening to Phish, mostly via older brothers. I wasn't really getting into them until listening closely for a couple of years. There’s a lot of nuance. When you first hear them it’s a little strange and little bit different, it’s an acquired taste. I was already into classic rock and the Grateful Dead, so I had some initial orientation, but Phish has a sound all of their own.
How would you rate Phish’s playing right now versus past years? You have any favorite periods?
I went to about half the shows on the fall 2013 tour, and that’s about the best I’ve seen Phish play live — they really gelled beautifully. I saw Hampton, Worcester and all three of the Atlantic City shows and it was just an amazing tour. I’ve never seen them so consistently good night after night. And I definitely prefer seeing indoor Phish shows.
Trey wasn’t so much playing with the speed and ferocity of the mid-late 90’s but they’re collectively as a band so much more diverse in what they can do. In a way, the band has kind of caught up to Trey and its not so much about him as it is the total product.
I generally prefer my Phish 1997 and after, maybe ’97 and ’98 are my favorite years. I’d say 1999 and 2000 are underrated — and 2003, while not as consistent as they are now, was pretty good. In regard to the Grateful Dead I like the really raw, early stuff — the ’67, '68, ’69 thing — and I really like ’71 and ’72. So, basically, the early '70s.
From the standpoint of a professional GOP operative, how do you interpret the Phish scene?
Well, I never feel uncomfortable, that’s for sure. Obviously there are a lot of different things going on, euphemistically speaking. I find about half the crowd consists of professionals who like to have fun and aren’t uptight. Of course, there are a lot of folks who don’t seem to have much going on beyond the tour, but it certainly doesn’t bother me and I enjoy the scenery a great deal. I enjoy kind of stepping back into a little bit of a different world than I deal with in my daily life, kind of check out for a while. But, bottom line, no judgment — everything’s cool.
Were you a Republican first or into Phish first?
It’s pretty close, actually. I got involved with the Young Republicans in high school sophomore year and the next year got heavily into Phish, so about the same time, but Republican first. "Good music is good music," is my attitude, and that’s the way most people think, in my opinion.
How’d you get involved in campaigns and find a path to your current consulting gig?
I actually started out managing state legislative races when I was at UT. I’d take a semester or two off and get involved. I then managed a state legislative race in Virginia, and then started climbing the ladder, so to speak. Since 2008 I’ve been most focused on U.S. House races. I served [in DC] at the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and was the southern regional press secretary during the 2010 cycle when we gained control of the House of Representatives.
All of that led to my current job, which mostly involves communications strategy and producing media for House races. I really like what I do, but unless I had started at the bottom I’d never have known how all the pieces fall into place.
Most of the races I managed up until about the age of 25 were losing races, but I don’t really look at it as "losing" because you’re really out learning and meeting people who’ll help you out later if you’re any good. Being at the NRCC in 2010 when we took control of the House — and being involved in dozens of southern races — that was incredibly rewarding and satisfying professionally.
Getting a job at the NRCC in Washington is a plum situation, and not easy to come by. How’d you get that job?
Well, I managed a congressional race in 2008 in the Chicago suburbs, and some of the folks I was dealing with at the NRCC stayed on in 2010. I got an offer and came on board in the summer of 2009.
What are your general thoughts about living and working in DC these days? Do you get tired of the bitterness and acrimony, or is that just the way it is?
The partisanship and gridlock can get kind of mind-numbing. It’s not my general style, but that’s the world that I live in and part of the job. I’m an amenable, open-minded guy, and don’t get too deeply attached to holding partisan and ideological grudges. It’s a good idea to have debate and compromise and work together, but again, its all a function of elected members of Congress doing what they think is in the best interests of their constituents. I do my job and they do theirs. I’ve got an equal amount of Republican and Democratic friends, but someone’s politics don’t impact my enjoyment of their company or ability to have fun.
What recommendations do you have for young folks who want to get involved in campaigns and do what you do?
You have to get out there in the field and take chances, and no one’s going to do it for you. Losing a few races is good advice — seriously. It’s going to happen if you get involved enough — especially in primaries. I think its better to be thrown into the fire and be in charge and be accountable and learn on the fly how to deal with flare-ups and crises.
The trend towards specialization in the campaign business is how you’re going to eventually make a living — but when you’re first starting out you need to try to learn a little about everything so you can understand what the whole piece is about.
When you go into the studio to produce a TV spot, what’s your general approach?
I guess the biggest thing is to talk about and connect the candidate’s biography with his or her legislative passion, so to speak, and dovetail that with your overall message and rationale to being elected. There are lots of things in candidates' bios, but just a very few hit home in a way that resonate with the public, and that help achieve certain political objectives. You try to use the personal story to help make the race about the voters and their hopes and dreams.
So what’s your outlook for the 2014 mid-term election?
I think the GOP will pick up a few seats in the House and I believe we’ll pick up the U.S. Senate — which is a big deal. A lot can change quickly in politics as we all know, but there’s not really a lot going on in Congress or the economy that will change the general trajectory of the election.