Member Spotlight: Caitlin Handerhan

Behind every great political race is an even greater campaign manager. It is an art to be able to merge public relations, political science, digital media, and public affairs in a way that earns a candidate the seat. During a race, there is a nearly palpable energy in the air—one that renders sleep useless for most campaign managers. Travel is incessant, emails and messages come in droves, and work days can be as long as highways.

Radius is home to Caitlin Handerhan, a campaign manager who lives for the thrill of the race. For Caitlin, sleepless election weeks are a small price to pay to be free from the tethers of a nine to five. Plus—at least in the off season—there’s some quality time for fictitious sounding sports like “skijoring.”

What is your favorite part of running a campaign?

So it’s funny, I was just talking to someone who asked me, “why do you run campaigns?” I said, “If you’re asking me that question, then you’re just never going to like it.” I think campaign work and political work is something you either love or you hate.

If you love it, it’s addicting. You start out in the beginning of the campaign maybe working 30 or 40 hours a week, and as you move closer to the election you’re working about 120 hours a week. It isn’t a job, it’s a whole lifestyle.

What is CMH Strategies? Give me an overview.

CMH Strategies is a political consulting firm. We do media relations, political consulting, and media management. It’s a lot of messaging, communicating with people, and, of course, nitty-gritty campaign management.

Are you from Erie?

I moved to Erie for Mercyhurst University and then I moved away for grad school at Cornell University. After living in Ithaca, I was trying to decide where I wanted to go and I thought, You know what? I had a really good time in Erie. That seems like a great place to launch a career. So, I came back.

I mean, where else do you have this kind of opportunity and access?

How is political consulting different than public relations?

PR is largely about sharing and disseminating information, where in political consulting, there is generally some kind of policy or electoral objective that you’re trying to achieve.

Political consulting is also more competitive and you have very measurable outcomes: you won your election or you lost your election, you connected with this base of voters or you didn’t connect with this base of voters, you successfully educated the public on a policy or you didn’t.

How do you measure everything leading up to an election?

Polling usually. While the 2016 presidential election showed how unreliable some of our polling models can be, good polling typically provides good insight into what voters think and how they will vote.

Where do you find your work?

I find work from everywhere, but I’d say the majority of my clients have been from Erie. I was working with Anna Franz from Emerge 2040, I had worked for Kathy Dahlkemper in the past at the county, and now I’m running her campaign full-time. My biggest contract right now is running her reelection race.

I’ve also been doing some work with the Environmental Defense Fund, working out of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg, to do some policy work for them. You can work remotely sometimes, but I don’t believe you can run a campaign remotely—you have to be in it.

So for you, it doesn’t necessarily depend on political party?

When I look at a candidate or an issue—even as a voter—I don’t decide on only one issue, I look at the whole situation. For example a pro-life or a pro-choice type issue is not a solitary deal breaker. If a candidate has an egregious voting record against human rights or something, then that would be a deal breaker; it’s about their overall impact. If a candidate can defend to me why they voted for a position I personally didn’t agree with, but did it for the right reasons . . . to me that makes the difference.

I won’t work with someone unless I really believe in what they’re doing. It’s rewarding when you put all this time and effort into a race and then that election night comes. It’s just the most incredible experience.

Tell me about the policy you’ve help to create and the nonprofits whose campaigns you’ve assisted.

A former client was Health Development Initiative Rwanda, so I was in Kigali for a summer and I was helping a nonprofit group with LGBT issues—not specifically policy because it was skirting bad laws to engage in this kind of advocacy, but it was organizing politically active supporters for tolerant reforms.

I worked under the guise of “health policy” with LGBT organizations; getting them informed, bylaws drawn up, a communications plan put in place. It’s so oppressive in Kigali that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender was illegal; people were going to jail and dying for their sexual orientation.

Soon I’ll begin another contract with the Environmental Defense Fund, specifically their Mom’s Clean Air Force Project. Before the election I was running their field program for the whole state of Pennsylvania, so I was operating out of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and doing education and advocacy work in Erie, Scranton, Allentown, and Harrisburg. We were doing a lot of work for Kathy McGinty and for Hillary Clinton, trying to unseat Senator Pat Toomey.

Well, global warming doesn’t exist, right? ;)

My favorite hashtag that I’ve learned since beginning this work is #ClimateChanged. Climate change has already happened, and it affects everyone.

What made you want to start this business?

Anyone that has started a business would tell you that good mentors are integral. I was working for Kathy Dahlkemper at the County Executive office, doing communications work part-time, and there was some questions as to whether or not council would continue to fund that position. That really catalyzed my decision. I don’t need to wait for somebody to tell me I have a job, I’m going to go make myself a job.

I’ve had the privilege of working with great women who have done this before me and they were very supportive. That moral support was helpful. It confirms that you’re not insane to leave a paying job and do everything on your own. Tina Mengine, who has managed campaigns in Erie for years, has been a particularly great mentor to me, providing valuable guidance and inspiration.

How long have you been established? How has running your own business been so far?

CMH Strategies began around March of 2016 and it’s been thrilling! There is always a terrifying thought of: where is my next contract coming from? I think a lot of people would find that stressful, but I find it stressful to sit in an office from 9:00 – 5:00 without good reason. To me, that’s worse than not knowing where my next paycheck is coming from. I have no regrets.

Give me an idea of the average day for a campaign manager.

It varies so much from day to day. Of course, you’re glued to your phone. You need constant access to email and social media. I try to start my days with a run … I try, that’s the operative word there.

It’s checking email, drafting web content, writing an ad or talking points. I try to do all my work in the morning, and then in the afternoon I’ll take meetings, meet with volunteers, go door-to-door, go to events, dial for dollars. It changes as the campaign evolves but it’s a lot of being out in the community.

When do the 100 hour work weeks come into play?

During Get Out the Vote (GOTV) week. The general arc of a campaign is like this: you set up your foundations, your digital presence, you start getting your volunteers organized; the in the middle you’re running day-to-day operations of that machine, and the end (the last two weeks) is called GOTV week.

GOTV is when you switch over fully to field operations. Almost everything else shuts down, and it’s just turning out voters. It’s going door-to-door, organizing volunteers, managing all your field software on the backend. Once you get into GOTV, campaign managers just don’t sleep.

What do you do when you’re not pounding the pavement?

I’m a big skier. One of things I love about my job is that it is flexible. I was able to take a season pass at the Peak this winter and ski during the week, and it is okay if I took two hours off on a Tuesday. I’m not chained to a desk.

I’m also learning to horseback ride, which took on an interesting twist this winter. Do you know what skijoring is? I have a friend who rides a horse well. She rides the horse and I ski behind it. We have this whole bridal system set up—there are two straps that I hold on to. It’s like waterskiing, but behind a horse with some jumps and obstacles to go through.

One more question! How does Radius help your business?

I think Radius is great in the fact that it’s a multifunctional, multipurpose space. I mean, technically I’m running a whole county executive campaign out of Radius. I have meetings here, I can do volunteer sessions here. It’s been great for me, because when you’re on a campaign your needs change every day, and what Radius offers is continually changing to meet members’ needs.