Stronger Together: Calling for Community
Issue   |   Fri, 11/11/2016 - 02:30
Will Gillespie ’15
Before becoming a field organizer for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, Gillespie ‘15 worked for Perella Weinberg Partners.

This election, the Hillary Clinton campaign was based out of Brooklyn, New York. A 10-minute walk from the headquarters will land you at the Gillespie household where Willy Gillespie ’15 grew up. As I witnessed at a Pennsylvania outreach base for the Clinton campaign, the family is tight-knit. It’s no surprise that it has given rise to Willy, someone who recently devoted months to encouraging others to take action with the possibility of making the country a better place.

After graduating from Amherst as a law, jurisprudence and social thought major, Gillespie set off to work at Perella Weinberg Partners doing Mergers & Acquisitions and Restructuring.

“I had worked there the summer prior. I enjoyed the time enough to take the return offer despite some of the miserable hours we worked,” Gillespie said. “The pay was good and it was interesting work so I decided to take it but after three months [...] it became pretty clear to me that finance was not something I wanted to stick with.”

His interest in finance quickly dwindling, Gillespie found that he ended up spending most of his free time reading about the election. He reached out to fellow Amherst grad Sally Marx ’14, who was working at Clinton headquarters as a political assistant to the national political director, and the ball was set in motion.

“I knew that politics was something I was interested in generally, intellectually and felt that what I was looking at, primarily organizing, was something that was more suited towards my strengths,” Gillespie said. “Numbers were never something I was really a star in. I think I took pre-calc senior year of high school, but never took a math class after that.”

Gillespie’s initial interest in politics was in large part rooted and nourished by his family. He volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2008 and then again in 2012. Although the first two attempts were rather minimal, Gillespie had caught the political bug.

“In 2008 I volunteered with my family. We went and knocked on doors in Pennsylvania,” Gillespie said. “And in 2012, I wasn’t very active. I volunteered with Amherst democrats, but just enough to make me feel good about it. I went to New Hampshire. I made 10 calls, so it wasn’t something that was really in the forefront of my mind. I hadn’t imagined doing this. I had read a book called the accidental investment banker, and though that’s what I was going to be. Clearly not.”

Driving to the Race
Gillespie’s brother and parents were increasingly politically active, but it was the nature of this particular race that really made him dive in completely. Marx ’14 put him in touch with someone at the Clinton campaign, and the process was set in motion. After a series of interviews, Gillespie’s future with the campaign hinged on one thing: a driver’s license. A native New Yorker, he’d never been behind the wheel. The entire process took three weeks, practice and a stroke of luck.

“This woman took it easy on me,” Gillespie said. “She said ‘you were really close to failing. In fact, you should have failed, but I’m gonna be nice.’ so I profusely thanked her. She probably should have failed me because about five weeks later I got into a fender bender.”

License in wallet, Gillespie started his job as a field organizer for the Pennsylvania Democrats on July 11. He was eager and inspired, having supported Clinton from the beginning. Clinton was an embodiment of the genre of politics that Gillespie finds inspiring: that which relies on realistic, yet meaningful change.

“I agree with the model of politics that relies on steady and incremental change and with realistic approaches and thoughtful frameworks,” he said.

In addition to his support for Clinton, Gillespie felt that he could not disregard the monumental nature of this race.

“For generations, people are going to be talking about this race. I don’t think this is a race that’s necessarily a contest between two political opponents, and I think most are. I think Obama said recently that when he was running in 2008 and 2012 he disagreed with McCain and Romney, but when it came down to it, he still thought the country would be safe if he had lost. I feel very strongly that Trump represents an existential threat to our values. I think Donald Trump is the antithesis of the very basic values that are American that often bridge the gap between republican and democrat.”

Gillespie joined the race because Donald Trump seemed to disregard that which “seems to really make America great, as it is.”

“I just couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore,” he said.

With Her
As a field organizer, Gillespie organized people into action. He reduced the task to “making a lot of phone calls.” But the job is no easy task — it requires connecting with hundreds of people a day. It takes a person that is not only apt at interacting with others, but at inspiring them to believe in a cause.

“People often expressed surprise when I told them Will had left Perella Weinberg to join Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but they shouldn’t have been,” Gillespie’s brother Cullen Gillespie ’18 said. “Politics, and political campaigns especially, are about people. And Will has always been about people. He’s always been at his strongest when working with others to achieve a common goal, and to see him on this campaign was to see him at his best, at his most vibrant and most passionate.”

Gillespie had the opportunity to work with a diverse group of people from law school students to local volunteers. Most of the organizers won’t continue on with politics, but have joined to help support the candidate they believe in.

“It’s a goofy mood,” Gillespie said. “From late night dancing to Brian flicking rubber bands and making necklaces out of paper clips. It’s goofier than most people would like to admit.”

Leading up to the election, Gillespie made four or five hours of calls a day to people who have either indicated interested in volunteering, have donated or have indicated some sort of interest beyond your average supporter. He reached out to 200 to 300 people a night.

“Of course you’re not speaking to 200-300 people,” Gillespie said. “Most of them will never take your calls. But the idea is you make enough casts, you catch a fish.”

The weekends varied as the campaign progressed. Prior to the registration deadline, they focused on voter registration, holding various voter registration drives. Closer to Election Day, Gillespie managed volunteers to knock on doors, identifying voters and reaching out to them.

“In some cases, we were persuading them,” Gillespie said. “Most of the time not. Canvassing tends to be an exercise in information gathering.”

During GOTV, volunteers were sent to speak with voters to make sure they had a plan in place.

To Gillespie, each volunteer was important in their own right. On Election Day, he split his time hunched over a computer, smiling while entering in the remarkable amount of volunteers that had showed up, and interacting with people at the canvassing base. He offered me coffee as I walked in, and kept me excited, and hopeful.

“When you do develop a team of volunteers and they are effectively put to work it’s always a great thing to see,” Gillespie said.

He explains that he owes part of his love for communicating to Amherst.

“Discussion based classes create an environment to learn strong communication skills,” he said. “Those are important to have in organizing and trying to get people to do things, organize them into action.”

It was obvious this skill runs in the family. His parents and brother rushed around the room, helping organize materials, and sitting down to chat about the milkshakes at the diner down the road.

“They love it,” Gillespie said. “They’re great. They came out almost every weekend over the past month and a half.”

Stronger Together
What Gillespie values in Hillary Clinton is the trait that he himself has, and which made him such a successful organizer — her unwavering regard for togetherness, for coming together to be better as a whole.

“Hillary Clinton, her entire life, has fought for children and families. It’s clear to me that she is not seeking office for political ego or anything like that. I think she really does want to work hard. And I think she’s proven that — there is no evidence to the contrary. She works hard and is driven by cause not ambition and she really does believe she can make this country a better place,” Gillespie said. “I’d also love to see a woman in the White House,” he added.

Election Day
On Election day, Gillespie woke up early to make sure the staging location — where volunteers would be gathering before heading out to canvas — was set up. He managed and launched canvases to several boroughs in Pennsylvania, and managed requests for rides to voting locations. Additionally, his team was responsible for flagging ground specific information, like the poll lines being too long or supposed voter intimidation. In a back room of the base, Gillespie eagerly reported canvassing statistics.

The day was fast-paced, and Gillespie was moving the entire time, inspired by the potential of Clinton and the threat that is Donald Trump.

“I think the rise of someone like Donald Trump is pretty concerning,” he said. “I think it’s remarkable that you have a president whose approval rating is like 60 percent and yet almost 45 percent of the country supposedly supports a man who is in diametric opposition to what Obama stands for. Donald trump gets away with so much blatant lying and it’s concerning that so many people are willing to listen to him and are willing to forgive the unforgivable things he’s said or done. I also think it’s concerning that the best predictor of a Donald Trump supporter is their score on an authoritarian scale — a test of their authoritarian tendencies.”

“It’s like an alternate reality and so many people buy into it,” he said. “So many people are fueled by hate and that’s concerning. But other than that, I’m optimistic. It’s clear the country has a lot of work to do, no doubt about that. But I think we’ll come out alright.”

As the results started to come in, I sat surrounded by Gillespie, his family and his coworkers. The room was in disbelief, but Gillespie never gave up hope. He cheered at every little success, communicated with everyone in the room and refused to go home to sleep until 7 a.m.

To be able to communicate not just an idea, but also a feeling, is something we look for in a leader. Gillespie is an embodiment of that, and as his brother Cullen said, “I could not be prouder of the work he’s done nor more excited to see what he will do next.”

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