The Daniel Biss Interview

I'm not really so into politicians. I went to college with a lot of aspiring ones and typically I found them to be phony and egotistical. So it was sort of surprise when I found out my friend Daniel Biss was running for State Representative. He's not phony or egotistical--actually he's really kind, supportive, funny and scarily smart (he's currently Assistant Professor of mathematics at The University of Chicago). And he's a friend of John Green too which speaks for itself. So I've been forced to reconsider my stance on politicians as Daniel's campaign gains an unprecedented kind of support and publicity--so I'm not just fascinated by him because he'll undoubtedly handle the job well, but also because he's sot of the future of politics. Just read some of his press. Also, Chicagoans, you can meet Daniel in person at a fundraising event on Wednesday which yours truly will be attending. Info on the shindig is here.

So for people who haven't been following your campaign thus far, what are some specific changes you'd bring about if you were elected?
On a public policy level, I plan to change the fact that Illinois ranks 48th in the country in education funding per student. I also want to enact elevated vehicle emissions standards in Illinois, because I've taken a bold stand against extinction of the human race. Speaking of which, I intend to fund the CTA, something which our legislators currently appear incapable of doing.

It's equally important to me, though, to change the way politics is done in this state. We have such a nutty system -- from the corruption to the patronage to the inefficiency to the nepotism. To me, the most exciting thing about this campaign is how we've built a strong base of supporters who aren't a part of the political status quo. That's going to make it a lot easier for me to function as an independent after I win, since I won't "owe" the seat to anyone except for people at the grassroots level who agree with and support my agenda.

Tell us what part YouTube has had in your campaign.

Well, the biggest boost was when our mutual friend John Green launched a hilarious fundraiser for the campaign on his video blog Brotherhood 2.0. (You can see the stunning and more than a little revolting resultions here and here.) This got the campaign lots of visibility, including this Wall Street Journal profile.

This was very exciting for me, not just because it was great for the campaign, but particularly because John and Hank's devoted viewership, who are mostly young people who are mostly not political activists or volunteers, got very engaged in the campaign. The sad thing is how totally outside-the-box this is in today's politics. The idea that you could reach out to communities of people who are social and interested in the world around them but not yet politically active just never occurs to most campaigns. That's why political campaigns so often sound like a bunch of insiders talking to each other: because that's what's actually happening.

The other role YouTube plays is that it allows me to post videos like this, this, or this about the campaign. These are (hopefully) charmingly-low-tech videos in which supporters talk about why they're supporting me in the hopes of convincing more people to jump on board.

When did you start seriously considering going into politics?
Sometime in 2003 or 2004. I was very upset about what was happening to our country early in the Bush administration, and I starting doing a lot of political volunteering. Then at some point I realized that political activism was the most satisfying thing I was doing, and that I could probably be more effective if I made it my actual job.

Why did you decide to run for this particular office?
First of all, I have some expertise and interest in education policy, and state government is the best place to influence that. But beyond that, I've come to realize that I'm most motivated in politics by my desire to connect government to grassroots communities. And I think the first place we should be doing that is at the state and local level -- that's why this race is so satisfying to me. It's provided an opportunity for literally over a thousand volunteers and contributors to participate in state government. I know it sounds a little naive, but I think that if we had greater participation in politics, and elections, then we'd have a far healthier government.

Are you surprised by the amount of press you've received?

Yes. I definitely didn't expect to be interviewed by you!

How would you say you're like your average politician? And how would you say you're not at all?
One of those questions is really easy to answer: I'm nerdier, skinnier, mumblier, more honest, and far more prone to long pauses in mid-conversation than pretty much any other politician I know. Oh, and did I mention that I'm not a lawyer?

On the other hand, I stay up late at night thinking about which precincts to target and whose door to knock on and which issue to highlight and how to get the next endorsement. I think the intensely compulsive aspect of this enterprise is pretty universal.

What about you makes you right specifically for Illinois?
Well, I live here, for one. That's sort of a biggie. And my father grew up here and I have lots of family on the North Shore. And we're struggling mightily with education policy which is one of my strongest interests. Plus, I think Illinois politics are so corrupt that we really need candidates who can bring new people into the process and who seek to fundamentally change the system. Basically, the status quo in Illinois politics is a giant problem. And as you can see from my answer to the previous question, I'm pretty far from the status quo!

Care to disclose something personally embarrassing about yourself before your rivals can sling the mud?
When I drive, I'm literally unable to stop myself from factoring the numbers I see on license plates. The plan is that after I win, I'll spend all that energy working out the state budget. Either that, or else I'll show up in Springfield and say "I'm not sure how I'm voting on the bill, but this Ford Taurus whose plate was 7 times 13 times 151 kept cutting me off on the way down here!"

Your bio makes you sound really busy: if you get elected, how are you going to fit everything in?
Sleep? Who needs sleep?

Actually, if I win (or, as we say in the politics biz, when I win), I won't be able to teach full-time any more, since the legislature is in session during the spring. But I'd be able to teach one class in the fall quarter. Part-time math professor, part-time legislator...I'll be living the dream!

How did you come to be involved with Act Blue? How does it work for you?

ActBlue is a website that allows anyone to raise funds for Democratic candidates. It's the easiest way for a Democrat to raise money on-line. You can check out my ActBlue hub to get a feel for the site. It's been a great fundraising tool for the campaign, and an even better attention-getting tool (the media loves to write about the Internet in politics, and my ActBlue success is an easy story to cover).

You've gotten a lot of press about your fundraising--what's going to happen with all the money your supporters have raised for you?
We could throw a helluva party, right?

Actually, this is a complicated question. The conventional answer would be that a small chunk goes to administrative costs (staff, office space, letterhead, yard signs, etc.) and the rest goes to direct mail. The problem with direct mail is that it's awful and boring and nobody reads it. So we're always looking for more innovative and less unpleasant ways of communicating -- we'd like to go on cable TV, and I'm happy to experiment with less conventional options as well. Right now, the Internet has been an incredible buzz-building tool for the campaign, but it remains to be seen whether it can be an effective way of reaching undecided voters.

The most frustrating part of the story is that the fundraising has been unbelievably important in getting attention for the campaign. Certainly all the ActBlue stuff has been a big part of it, but even before that, when I filed my first campaign disclosure report, which showed a lot of early fundraising success, it completely changed the way political insiders looked at my campaign. The pernicious influence of money on politics is the subject of a long -- and sad -- discussion, but suffice it to say that I entered this campaign wary of the connection between money and politics, and everything I've seen since has only worsened my impression.

I am, however, proud of the way in which I've raised money. We now have donations from 1,000 individuals, most of whom are giving small amounts, and many of whom are first-time political contributors. The emphasis on money isn't something I like, but at least we've been able to use it as another way of engaging people in the political process.

Your official photos are great--you look serious but not stiff, and you've got the Metra there. What are your tips for a successful campaign portrait?
Well, I highly recommend standing on a Metra platform. Besides that, I don't really know. I tend to be horrifically unphotogenic, actually (something else I could have pointed out in the major-differences-between-me-and-most-politicians question!), but Jill Brazel is an awesome photographer and a friend, and she did a great job of putting me at ease.

Are you finding now that you have to be a little more careful now in social situations of the things you do and say, or is your social life pretty much the same as it was before you decided to run?
The major difference between my social life before I decided to run and my social life now is that before I decided to run, I had time to pursue a social life! Beyond that, I'm a little more careful, but not much. It's important for me that this candidacy not change who I am in fundamental ways like how I interact with my friends, and it's also important to the campaign that I not become another politician who's scared to say anything that's not a bland platitude.

Who are you currently pulling for for the nominees of both parties for president and why?

I'm rooting for Obama on the Democratic side. I haven't been crazy about every aspect of his campaign, but I'm pleased to have a candidate whose political start was in grassroots organizing. It comes back to my feeling that the most important thing we can do to get the country back on track is to get more people -- and particularly young people -- engaged and politically active. It's exciting to see a campaign not only work hard at that but also make it a core part of the message.

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee, because I still believe in a place called Hope.

I know you teach math at a higher level than this but how do you make math understandable to students like me who had to get tutored by her mom at home on fractions and still hasn't recovered? (I hate math, is what I'm saying.)
Math is really a language, and most people who hate math or think they don't get math have never been taught to think in the language of mathematics. I'd love to write a book that introduces non-specialists to the language and "feel" of mathematics; I think getting used to that first would make learning math an awful lot easier and more fun. Part of the problem is that a lot of elementary school teachers don't like or understand mathematics themselves, and they wind up communicating their distaste or confusing to their students, which is pretty much a guarantee that those students will never be able to enjoy math.

Other than the formula you came up with for An Abundance of Katherines, have you done many custom formulas on-spec?
Sadly, none. But I'm happy to entertain further suggestions!

Were you in a secret fraternity at Harvard? I hear you have to have been in one in order to get elected to office.
True story: early in my sophomore year, an invitation to a secret society hazing event was mysteriously slid under my dorm door. The (hand-calligraphed) invitation said that the event was black tie, and at the time I didn't have a tux, so that was the end of that. Come to think of it, I could have also mentioned my wardrobe in response to the major-differences-between-me
-and-most-politicians question.

Fortunately, the secret fraternity requirement is only for Yale graduates.

How does it feel to be the 195th person interviewed for
Awesome, particularly because 195 is a lucky number. Here's an amazing fact about our 21st century information superweb: the number 195 has a wikipedia page. And it doesn't even mention the fact that 195 is the smallest number n whose square divides C(2n,n). Someone should fix that.