Delaware State Senate candidate James Spadola speaking at a fundraiser of his at 1313 Innovation in Wilmington.

I donated to a political campaign for the first time in my life

Let’s start with scale: I attended a political fundraiser and wrote a check for $250.

Next, consider context: it was for someone I’ve known for longer than I can remember, among the closest of my family friends, who lived a few houses down from me when I was just a few months old.

Even still, I actually agonized a bit about the decision. Journalism is a thicket of rules and expectations and among the loudest is to stay objective in politics and distant from the money that feeds it. I was worried my donating would cloud the work I do as editorial director at niche publisher Technically Media. Here’s why I decided it was the right decision.

That industry worldview of political objectivity has hardened my naturally collaborative (read: bipartisan) instincts. I have a streak of 21st Century American centrism that has kept me stubbornly registered independent of party affiliation even in a city that means I essentially have little say in our local elections. (I’ve only ever voted for Democratic presidential candidates, but I’ve supported Republican state and local candidates and try to intentionally pursue the best of any party. Political parties can be helpful shorthand, but we still choose individuals to represent us.)

However, lots of professional expectations for me have changed in recent years, as I settle into more of a publisher role than reporter or editor. I am entirely removed from the daily editorial decisions of the news organization that employs me (and I cofounded).

Last year, I first tested what felt appropriate. I joined a pair of nonprofit boards, choosing intentionally efforts I once had reported on and therefore felt I knew well, believed in and could support but that I would no longer be making editorial decisions about.

This year, I was asked to donate to several different local campaigns, but I turned those offers down upon receipt, informed by what still largely remains my stance: I don’t feel ready to begin even modestly contributing regularly to campaigns. (Though I have established an early annual philanthropic strategy that holds similarities.) Political donations are complicated: I’ve reported on them, and my peers tend to approach them all as if something is rotten about them. Money corrupts, goes the logic.

james-wink-cliffs-moher-ireland
Me and James Spadola at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland in 2013.

But I knew something was different when my dear childhood friend James Spadola told me he was running for a State Senate seat in Delaware. It’s a state in which I do not live but I do pay fairly close attention to and have a strong affinity for after following for the last several years the work we do with Technical.ly Delaware. There are literally fewer than a dozen people whom I’ve known for longer in my life — and I’m including my parents in that list.

For the first time, I really understood that there are lots of reasons to donate to a political campaign — the right candidate, peer pressure, social positioning, access, and, sure, influence, among many others. For me, this is a person whom I value, trust and believe in. He’s a friend doing something he cares about, and I want to support him.

It helped, too, that James has challenged my objectivity in other ways. He was the first person I was intimately close to whom we objectively had to report on, and we have reported on James. In his capacity as a Newark, Del. cop who pushes open data policies, creates viral video campaigns and wins tech community awards, we couldn’t ignore him. But I always removed myself from those editorial decisions — I would share the news with our editorial team, but we made clear this was no different than all other tips I share. They are options, not orders.

I already precluded myself from reporting or editing or overseeing any news about him. That will continue.

That’s important because we’ll likely report on him since he is quite the ‘wild card:’ James is a 33-year-old Iraq War veteran law enforcement officer, a Libertarian-leaning registered Republican with an MBA and lots of socially liberal and other centrist perspectives (decriminalize marijuana already, he says), a track record of pursuing transparency efforts, a savvy sense of humor and a great work ethic. That’s gotten him attention in Delaware — coverage in the Wilmington News Journal and radio station WDEL, in addition to Technical.ly.

It helps that in an era of anti-establishment candidates, he’s running against a 40-year incumbent (and son of a Congressman). This hasn’t had to be a stretch: James is interesting and serious and worth supporting whether or not I knew him. But knowing him has made it so much easier for me to test this experience.

As if I needed another, one sign that has made me even more confident in supporting James is that no one I’ve met from his team says their campaign opponent is a bad guy (a few even specifically mentioned good he had done). Rather they say they believe he is no longer the best representation for a state and a city desperately in need of thoughts about retaining young and interesting people. James represents a lot for them.

Like those supporters, I now believe that James Spadola is the best candidate to represent Wilmington and Delaware (State Senate District #1). He’s someone I want in civic affairs, policy conversations and politics. No doubt James is challenged this year: in a hyperpartisan election cycle, the top of James’s ticket is a contentious Republican presidential candidate likely to turn off the majority Democrats (about 60 percent) in the district his 40-year veteran Democratic opponent benefits from. But James is the kind of person I want involved in politics.

The more I looked at this situation, the more I believed this was a safe place for me to make my first (very small) foray into a different slice of politics.

So I went to a fundraiser (depicted above), helpfully held at a coworking space our publication knows well. The Democrat founder of the property development company (whom I know well too) behind the coworking space was the event’s sponsor and host. I had a couple beers and appetizers, met an array of people James had met eagerly knocking on doors in his district and then heard James, current Delaware State Senator Greg Lavelle and the evening’s host Paul McConnell speak. (Delaware State Treasurer Ken Simpler was there too.)

And what I heard was exactly what I want to hear in all situations like that. Effectively behind closed doors, with all the reason to be critical and tribal, there was no chest bumping or ugly rhetoric, no bashing of the opponent or hyper partisan talk.

State Senator Lavelle said he believed Delaware was at its best when there was bipartisan centrism. He didn’t call for his party to take over, he just wanted “a few good people from both sides to be around the table.” Simpler talked about commonsense, wonky policy. There was lots more talk about governing than about the business of politics.

James, just 33, gave his stump speech, a mix of national policy issues and lessons from his work, like drug decriminalization lessons from policing.

It was all very civilized. James thinks he can do a better job than his opponent: he doesn’t think his opponent is a bad person. It was in a room of people from Delaware hearing someone say why. Everyone cared about their community.

It’s likely clear that I won’t be doing much political donating anytime soon. But I’m sure I’ll do some. And for the near term, I’ll continue to disclose here and seek our similar settings and candidates.

I can’t vote for James, since I don’t live in his district, and we’ll have to wait until November to see the result, but I’ll plan to donate to those like him, who want to work together to find compromise and make their communities better. I don’t care what party affiliation you are. In truth, I don’t care if we agree on everything.

I care that you’ll listen, like James does. Because I know James is no zealot nor ideologue. When I disagree with him, he actually listens to me. That’s someone I’ll support.

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