Second in a series
By N. Clark Judd
For presumptive City Council candidate Tony Cassino, picking a Web site was a $2,500 question.
With the Internet becoming increasingly pervasive in politics, local candidates are trying to figure out how much time - and money - to spend on it. Taking their cues from national campaigns, candidates gearing up for 2008 and 2009 races in the neighborhood are learning the Web in what will be the most wired campaign to date.
"I'm betting that it will be an important tool for everything," Mr. Cassino said, explaining his investment, "for research, for getting my positions out there, and for raising funds."
As with any new tool, there's a steep learning curve - and there are also complications, explained Jamin Sewell, City Councilman Oliver Koppell's counsel and another competitor in the same race. New election laws put into place this year, he said, make online campaigning trickier.
"There are a number of new compliance issues that make it costly" to collect donations online, he said.
"Transactions must be recorded in real time," he explained, while providers like the popular online payment system PayPal have a delay between when a transaction happens and when it's reported.
Mr. Sewell recently launched a campaign Web site that includes a run-down of his accomplishments, describes his platform and has a contribution form that donors can print out and mail in along with a check - but he says it might be too early to spend too much on the Internet.
"I'm not convinced that in this particular race, at this particular moment, that a campaign strategy that relies heavily on the Web is going to be that helpful," he said.
He and Helen Morik, who has yet to put up her Web site but intends to do so, are the cautious candidates when it comes to technology in the 2009 City Council campaign.
Ari Hoffnung - who's collecting signatures online for a parking policy initiative - and Mr. Cassino spent about the same amount of money on their campaign Web sites. They are more aggressive, gambling that the Internet will play an increasing role in their campaign infrastructure in the same way it has become a phenomenal fund-raising tool at the national level.
Not everyone is comfortable with the Internet, said Mr. Hoffnung, but "I realize that for those who are, it's a way to engage them and it also recognizes the fact that people are extremely busy, and anytime they have a couple minutes and they're inclined to go online, the site is available."
Those brief spurts of online activity are a new trend, says one political software expert. This year's national races have capitalized on it - and he's selling technology he says will help local campaigns cash in as well.
"It's a Wikipedia-style politics, right, lots of people using small increments of time when it's convenient for them to help out the campaign," said Stuart Trevelyan, president of Washington, D.C.-based NGP Software Inc.
Since 1997, NGP has been producing a suite of software targeted to Democratic candidates for public office - "every once in a while a client has switched parties from being Democrat to being Republican and we fired them," Mr. Trevelyan said - ranging from volunteer and voter databases to software that allows them to collect online campaign contributions. Democratic presidential candidates and U.S. Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York - and, Mr. Trevelyan says, 76 percent of the Democratic members of Congress - are among his clients.
Mr. Cassino and a rival, Ari Hoffnung, are also clients.
The new world of politics isn't all online, but it will no longer consist entirely of doorknocking and phone banks, said Mr. Trevelyan.
"Where you see the really successful campaign succeeding is at the intersection of the Internet and 'meat-space,' the real world, and getting those two channels to interact successfully," he said.
"Online communities can exist in ways that are really robust at this point," he explained.
Mr. Cassino and Mr. Hoffnung are both counting on that. Online, they say, they can reach their voters directly - without the interference of an occasionally hostile media - and interact at any time.
"With no disrespect to you guys," said Mr. Cassino, speaking to a reporter, "the way we used to always get our information was directly through newspapers, and in a way we still do, but this cuts out the middleman.
"People used to send letters to the editor," he continued. "I think you're going to see much more of an online conversation going on, even at the local levels. That'll be great and I think that'll be the thing that we see locally."
That conversation would be unfettered by an editor's moderation, or by rules like one The Riverdale Press has that restricts letter-writers to one submission every six weeks. The Press has already used the Internet to bend that rule. When a controversial story about New York University professor Tony Judt coming to Riverdale sparked a flurry of letters, this paper posted every letter on its blog that it could not publish in print.
And one local candidate is also using the Internet to spark conversation - as part of an attack campaign.
Carlos Gonzalez, state Sen. Efrain Gonzalez Jr.'s son and a campaign aide, has been churning out a steady stream of videos on YouTube throughout his father's re-election effort. Together with a part-time videographer, he put together a video attacking the residency of his father's competitor, Pedro Espada Jr., in a run-up to a petition challenge still being waged in court. The video stirred the interest of this paper, The Norwood News, The New York Daily News and the New York Observer, all of which published articles or blog posts about the challenge to Mr. Espada's residency.
"If a picture speaks a thousand words, a video speaks a million," said Mr. Gonzalez.
But it doesn't decide court cases. Mr. Espada won the case, and the elder Mr. Gonzalez's staff was in appeals court Tuesday trying to overturn the decision.
Video and "citizen journalism" will be part of the future of politics, said Mr. Trevelyan, as will social networking. But it will be used in different ways; he's cooking up a means to enable a candidate's existing supporters to stump for him to their friends, via e-mail.
"The cutting edge now is finding the way to provide tools to supporters to engage in persuasion," he said.
As the Internet becomes more pervasive, he hopes, so will his technology - right down to Riverdale races.
"Ari Hoffnung can use the same software that Barack Obama can," Mr. Hoffnung said, marveling. "How cool is that?"