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Vote of Confidence

Let others craft attack ads or snarky blog posts. For Voting Works’ Hans Goff, making a difference means getting those in underserved communities to the polls — and enabling their collective voice to be heard

DON’T EVER TELL Hans Goff (above) that the personal isn’t political. For him, it’s most definitely personal — as well as increasingly professional. Goff, 28, is the founder of Voting Works, a Trenton, New Jersey–based political consultancy he founded in 2010.

Politics has been in Goff’s blood since he was 16, when he spent time working for the mayor of Trenton, his hometown. Goff has since worked for the Democratic National Committee and for former governors Mark Warner (of Virginia, now a Senator) and Jon Corzine (of New Jersey); been a paid staffer for several Congressional and gubernatorial campaigns; and served as a policy volunteer for Obama for America in 2008.

His efforts, he notes, tipped him off to a truism: People are keener to discuss politics, and get involved in the process, if the messenger is compelling. So Goff founded Voting Works to help bring voters in underserved communities into politics, using celebrity “surrogates” to appear at events and discuss issues important to people in those communities.

Among his first moves was to tap into the Rolodex of his famous godmother, Patti LaBelle. He’s also been able to use his own nationwide network — built through his work on all those campaigns — to recruit such celebs as the Roots’ ?uestlove and Michael K. Williams (who played Omar Little on The Wire) to spearhead Voting Works’ initiatives.

Even in an off-election year, business is booming: In April, Voting Works became one of the newest companies brought into the funding-and-mentoring program of 100 Urban Entrepreneurs, the nonprofit foundation of TheCASHFLOW, on the strength of Goff’s 60-second business pitch — delivered in 100UE’s video-pitch booth at the 2011 Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference + Expo in Atlanta. He’ll receive $10,000 in startup financing and eight weeks of intensive business mentoring.

Looking ahead to next year, meanwhile, Goff will be working hard to keep engaged the legions of young Obama voters from 2008, and using his business’s growing clout to make a difference in races across the country. “I want to be involved with all campaigns,” he says, “from the presidential down to local races.”

And although he won’t be eligible for the presidency until the election of 2020, does he ever envision himself on the hustings, managing his own campaign for public office? He answers, naturally, with the aplomb of a seasoned politician. “I get that a lot,” he says, laughing.

•••

What was your eureka moment regarding the launch of Voting Works?
I was working on [then–New Jersey Governor Jon] Corzine’s [2009 reelection] campaign. I was deputy director of outreach, and part of my job was to focus on voter turnout. What we found was that a lot of people were disengaged, simply because of voter fatigue — 2008 was a huge election, and in ’09, Virginia and New Jersey were the only two states with elections. So we started a program called Yes We Can 2.0, through which we went after the surge voter — the first-time voter from 2008. The goal was to get them back to the polls.

How did the idea of celebrity surrogates come about?
Well, my godmother is Patti LaBelle, so we had a lot of different connections. But the first event I did was with Michael K. Williams [from TV’s The Wire ] — we have a mutual friend, and we were talking about politics. She said Michael was involved in Obama’s campaign, he’s energized and wants to do something.

The idea was not to just bring him out and do an event, but do something more community-based. We did a barbershop tour in Newark — we hit three or four barbershops and beauty salons, then ended with a rally with the governor.

Something sparked — there were people coming out of apartment buildings to have a conversation with [Williams]. I couldn’t walk down the street with an elected official and get those kinds of results. Whoever we bring in, of course, has to be involved in the issues. People will come out and talk to them — and from there, things just kind of move.

Corzine ended up losing, though. Not that that can be laid at your feet, but how do you measure success other than by vote totals?
The metric is important. Anytime you have any investment, people want to know how effective it is. What we found, though, was that anywhere I went with a [celebrity] surrogate, we met or exceeded our [goal for] vote totals. We did a vote-by-mail party with ?uestlove [from the Roots], and the vote-by-mail Web site crashed two times. In certain communities, when you have a nonpolitical figure involved with the campaign, it really resonates. I’m trying to capture that excitement.

Tell us a little about Voting Works’ business model. You’re not a nonprofit, correct?
No, we’re a for-profit company. The way it’s constructed is that the campaign we’re involved with would pay us on a retainer basis, or on a fee-for-service. We charge a basic percentage — for artists’ travel, time, et cetera. And if the campaign has a new-media department, we’ll work with them on the social-media aspect. What makes Voting Works special and not just an rally- or event-planning business is that we really try to incentivize it. Say you’re a barbershop owner. If you partner with a campaign, and you register X amount of people, you can get front-line access to the events that we do.

You’re still a very small company. Looking ahead to 2012, how can you expand your reach regionally or nationally on short notice?
For 2012, I’m looking at partnerships. I’m looking throughout the whole country; I’ve gotten calls from different campaigns, ranging from a mayor’s race to the [Democratic National Committee]. It can be any scale.

Let’s say someone in Florida calls me, and they need someone to be there next week, and I can’t. I’ll contact my network of organizers from the DNC. I know organizers from all 50 states. Also, when you partner with campaigns, they have staff already on the ground.

Any plans to run for office yourself? “HansGoff2020.com” is still available — we checked.
[Laughs] I get that a lot. When I was younger, I always used to say no, but as I get older, I play with it in my head. I still live in Trenton, in the community I grew up in. If I see there’s a need in the community, then yeah — it might be something I’m interested in. •