Catching up with Greg Speed from America Votes
I met Greg Speed at Communities for Quality Education, a 501c4 hatched by some of the minds behind America Votes, in the mid-2000s. Greg had just come from the DCCC and was going to be our Communications Director, which was not a fair title for the portfolio he would build and the influence he would have over the team.
He’s been a role model for a lot of us, and I thought it would be fun to do an interview with Greg Speed, president of America Votes. AV leads national and state-based coalitions to advance progressive policies and increase voter turnout for progressive candidates and issues.
Michael Kolenc: Greg, you are from Chicagoland. You understand the bare knuckles kind of politics that happens. For me, some of my most formative experiences happened in Chicago and Illinois campaigns. What does the city mean to you? Is it an important part of your history? And did it influence your hotdog habits?
Greg Speed: I grew up in “Chicagoland” (the not-so-mean streets of Deerfield on the North Shore to be more precise). I love the city, but haven’t actually ever really worked in Chicago or Illinois politics. That said, growing up amid Chicago politics was a formative experience. I still remember when our local CBS 2 TV news covered the city council and Harold Washington running to be our city’s first black mayor in 1983 as closely as they cover crime stories today.
On hot dogs – I’m not a classic Chicago dog guy. There is absolutely nothing wrong with ketchup on a hot dog and you can hold the celery salt. But I appreciate the fact that a hot dog is a meal, not a boardwalk novelty. Chicago seems to be the only major American city that gets that. I mean – Gray’s Papaya? Puh-leeze…
MK: America Votes has done some tremendous work building infrastructure, filling holes in political programs, and letting leaders in the states drive programmatic decisions. What do you think – 20 years in – is the secret to the organization’s success? And what keeps you there?
GS: It sounds kind of trite, but it’s true – America Votes’ greatest strength has been to always stay focused on the work, to do that work well and to not care at all about getting credit. Staying focused on the plan and the work, being comfortable in the background are core skill sets if you want to build strong partnerships and keep a broad, diverse set of organizations at the table year after year.
That approach has appealed to an incredible group of progressive leaders that we’ve been so fortunate to have join the staff of America Votes and then stay with us for a very long time. The long tenure of our leadership, nationally and in the states, is another key to our success. Present company included (I hope).
What has kept me at AV? I can’t think of any other place where I could do more to support more progressive leaders and organizations who want to work together to win at every level.
MK: What do you think 2024 campaigns should be focused on right now? (Besides getting started, of course.) What messaging, field, or fundraising challenges are campaigns going to face this cycle? It’s not getting cheaper to run campaigns, after all.
GS: Although I firmly subscribe to the idea that negative polarization (i.e. most voters are most motivated to vote against something or someone) rules everything, I don’t think polarization alone will be sufficient to meet our challenges in 2024. We need to work hard to engage many critical but skeptical stakeholders in our coalition, especially younger voters of color, on the many accomplishments of the past four years to grow their enthusiasm for voting yet again at the historically high levels we’ll need to win next year.
But the other side of the strategy is also critical. We also need to stay focused on defining any conservative nominee and their ilk up and down the ballot as the MAGA extremists they truly are. Whether thy name is Trump, DeSantis, Haley, Scott, Christie or Burgum (who?) does not matter at all. They are all MAGA Trump Republicans who tried to steal your vote (and nearly succeeded), took away your abortion rights and will come for everything else important to you – including your Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – if you let them. Rinse, wash, repeat… A message for 2024… and 2036… and one that has the added benefit of being 100% true.
In 2024, we’ll need to deliver both of these messages to our voters through every channel and program tactic, at greater scale than ever before. Testing is great for optimization, but don’t expect revelation. Every program can have an impact if it is delivered according to best practice. But that impact is small (even smaller in a presidential cycle) and breaking through is indeed getting harder.
Our community, especially funders, need to stop looking for silver bullets and get focused early on the work that we all know needs to happen. Research, build, target, test, optimize, run hard, run at scale. Rinse, wash, repeat…
MK: The Dobbs leak happened just before the America Votes Summit in 2022 and it ended up being a decisive issue in the midterm elections. People were still in shock when we started that summit. How much is choice going to drive messaging from campaigns? What’s your advice for pushing back on Republicans?
GS: Abortion rights must be centered in all our campaigns in 2024 and likely many, many years beyond because reproductive freedom means a helluva lot to our voters and is at the core of our values. Democrats have a dismaying compulsion to try to reinvent the messaging wheel every two years. Stop. Our strategy on abortion should be the antidote to Democrats’ biannual hand-wringing about “messaging.”
The fight for abortion rights post-Dobbs is one of, if not the, defining issue of our time. It’s also a fight we also are extremely well-positioned to win if we stay focused on it, and one that usefully reveals the ugly truth about our conservative opposition by exposing the control they want to exert on all our lives in many ways if we let them.
MK: Ok, let’s do some rapid fire questions.
Best live music show you’ve seen?
GS: David Bowie, Milwaukee, 1987. Sat in the 6th row with my mom, a fanatical Bowie fan like me. So many great shows since; nothing can ever top that.
Favorite campaign to work on?
GS: My experience in the 1998 cycle was my favorite. I met so many incredible friends and colleagues as a press assistant at the DCCC and ended the cycle on the coordinated campaign in Wisconsin, helping elect Sen. Tammy Baldwin to her first term in the House. We defied midterm history. I first met my wife through mutual campaign connections. Hard to top.
GS: Statler & Waldorf
Something about Boston – not Dunkin please.
GS: I was born there, inheriting the Red Sox and Celtics from my dad even after we moved to the midwest. I took an awesome tour of Fenway Park during the 2004 Democratic Convention where I first learned that the Green Monster and Pesky Pole are absolutely covered in graffiti.
Favorite baseball game?
GS: Any game where my son (at DeMatha High School) or daughter (Capitol Hill Little League) are pitching.
Thank you, Greg, for your time and insights. We can’t wait to see the great work America Votes does in 2024.