Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Kovan Barzani, class of 2017, managed Jim Burke’s 2016 campaign for the Texas House of Representatives District 114 in Dallas. Barzani started out as a Fellow at the Dallas County Democratic Party, and within a month he was running Burke’s campaign. Barzani is triple majoring in economics, public policy and management. Upon graduation in May he will be working for Capital One in Dallas as a business analyst. The Tower Center sat down with Barzani to hear his story.
During my first couple of days as a volunteer at the Dallas County Democratic Party I made this huge spreadsheet that did a bunch of data work for all of the campaigns of the county. I showed it to some of the people who organize where we walk and they were pretty impressed by it so they had me take on a bigger role. By the end of the first week I was doing strategy work instead of making phone calls.
I led the first successful targeted Muslim outreach in Dallas County at that time. That got me a lot of attention. Burke watched me do all of this and I designed a strategy for his district and showed it to him. He really liked it. Then I asked if I could manage his campaign and he said sure. He was a throw-in candidate (someone you put in the race to gauge how the district is doing), but I wanted to make it a little more competitive. Voters shouldn’t just have to see that he’s a Democrat; they should see what that Democrat actually stands for.
What did you learn as a manager?
The importance of logistics. I realized that you can make really cool signs, posters or whatever, but if you don’t have a place to put them, then you’re going to struggle. Even if you have a place, you have to figure out how to get the signs there. I didn’t have a truck so I would have to go to Plano, pick up my mom’s SUV, drive to 635 around that district, put signs down, then drive back to Plano and pick up my car and drive home. I never thought about that when I was making the signs, I just thought we were going to have really cool signs.
What was it like earn a leadership position so quickly?
It was great because I got to go through and do things my way. I didn’t go through old campaign strategies or anything like that. I was taking it by the horns and saying “You know what? We’re going to try some new things out.”
One thing I did was a huge mail service for door hangers. My thinking was that if we could get a lot of people to turn out, we could reshape not just for Jim’s sake but for the Democratic Party in general. That House district that we were in was also in a U.S. Congressional District (Pete Sessions, R-TX, District 32) which voted more for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. These efforts that we did targeting low propensity voters actually helped Hillary’s performance in Dallas County more than would have traditionally been done. That was my strategy, to make sure that we could get turnout up all around the county, specifically in the northern part.
It reshaped my whole perspective of how politics should be. It should focus heavily on the local but it doesn’t.
How did being in the Tower Scholars Program affect your involvement?
A lot of Scholars were coming in and helping out from time to time and it was that network that helped support me.
In addition, while we didn’t really learn about campaigning in the Tower Scholar classes, we learned that in policy you always want to go back to the constituents and ask them what they want. So early in the campaign before we had a strong platform we went out and walked neighborhoods and asked people what they wanted from a candidate. There’s no guarantee you’ll win but at least you started a discussion. That idea comes from the Program. You can’t be out of touch and make policy.
But the network of the Program is the most powerful thing. Even Republicans within the program told me that they hoped I could pull it off. There’s some camaraderie there that’s nonpartisan, and supporting someone even if you don’t agree with them is a huge thing.
Do you see yourself managing more campaigns in the future?
Now that I’ve gotten into it, it’s a lot harder to get out of it. I’m taking a break for a little bit, but I expect to get back involved with the city council and mayoral races if I can find a candidate that I like and hopefully help them put in a message of change and progress. What I’ve learned now is that the local level, the city level, all of that is where everything really happens. And if you can control your cities and promote a good and strong ideology there, then you’ll probably win these elections. It all starts at that level.
I want to hopefully go on and get a joint MBA and policy degree and see where I go from there. I went from volunteer to campaign manager in less than a month. I didn’t even plan on being a volunteer until two weeks before I became one. So through a short stretch of time, everything exploded and that gives me hope. You need to have some plan and direction, but if you’re willing to put both feet forward, do what you can do, you’re always going to end up in a successful place. You just need to understand your skills and know what you can do.