For the first time on Elections Daily, we have a full interview with a former congressional candidate. Down below you can find the full transcript of my interview with Tom Brier, who ran in Pennsylvania’s 10th congressional district. You can also find a full audio version of the interview at the bottom of the page. I thank Tom for taking some time out of his day to speak to me. He was extremely kind and responsive to all of this.
What made you decide to run for Congress?
Brier: It was actually rather spontaneous. I was fortunate to grow up in a family that valued public service, in fact my parents both met while working for Governor Casey’s campaign in 1986. I just, always grew up with a positive view of public service and always thought that public service would be a really rewarding career.
And then 2016 happened and I was very worried about Donald Trump winning. I saw the direction the country was going in that regardless of your ideology was clearly not sustainable. So, I ended up writing a book about it and around that time I also had three friends pass away from opioid overdoses. I just felt like there were these circumstances that I just really couldn’t run from.
So I looked at this seat, an important seat with the combination to come home to Hershey and run for office. It was a once in a lifetime chance and I thought I could make a difference. I wish I could say I had this long term goal and a plan for it in my mind, but it was just one of those things that I said one night to myself, “you know what, why not give this a shot.
How did it feel to run for elected office in your hometown?
Brier: It was awesome. I got to reconnect with old teachers and professors from High School and College, old basketball coaches, lots of classmates I hadn’t seen in a long time. Being from the area and having two younger brothers that went through Hershey as well, I think we were really able to cross multiple generations, from parents to their students. It was really rewarding and that’s the best part about running for office. You reconnect with and meet with lots of wonderful people. Being in my hometown and doing from a place I grew up in was really just incredible.
What was the experience of running for congress like, especially as a 27 year old with really no prior experiences on campaigns?
Brier: I was 27 when I announced, I turned 28 in January, but I honestly loved every second of it. If you like people and you treat people with respect then there’s really no better profession than public service and campaigning. So it was definitely a “learn on the fly” experience, fundraising was soul sucking at times. That’s something I definitely did not have an appreciation for just how important fundraising is and how you go about it. I would say that was the most difficult part.
In terms of outreach and organizing and registering voters I enjoyed every aspect of that, which made it easy. I never found it hard to wake up in the morning and be excited about that. It was definitely a learning experience, but you take it all in stride and not be overly rigid about how to go about it. Take advice from people who have done it before and be creative. With the pandemic and how things have changed, that was the right way to go about it.
Do you feel your connections to the area helped with your connection to primary voters in the district?
Brier: I think so, especially in Hershey where there was a level of familiarity with me and my family. That was definitely something that helped us. Honestly outside of that, Dickinson and Derry Township a lot of the connections we made were new. We knew that Dauphin would be key to winning the race, so we spent a lot of time going to trash clean ups, events, festivals and barbecues. Anything that we could go to and get to know the leaders in the community.
It definitely helped from the standpoint that there was a level of familiarity, but on the whole most of the people we met, we met for the first time. It probably helped that I could say I’m from the area when I meet someone new, but it wasn’t really a relationship I had before with most folks at least.
Did you ever feel any pressure to drop out from the party or outside organizations?
Brier: I heard rumblings. There was no formal request to get out, but I heard comments like “why don’t you wait your turn?”. Even at the debate there was a question along those lines. I never really put too much into it, you know? I was in the race first, not that it really matters, but I chose Congress for a reason. I thought that’s where I could make the biggest difference and I wasn’t looking to play musical chairs. I don’t think voters are persuaded a whole lot by those external sources of validation. What they really care about is who they trust and where their values lie.
I knew we could fundraise at a rate that could be competitive. I thought this race was perfect for someone new and I respect Eugene (DePasquale) and I’m excited to support him against Scott Perry. In the end I was never really intimidated by the prospect of gong against someone who had been in elected office for such a long time.
When it comes to your fundraising numbers, were you surprised at all and the uproar of support you got from voters?
Brier: It was very heartening honestly. There were times I think back, especially to mid-March when the pandemic hit, where we had thirty fundraisers that were cancelled. It was a pretty stressful time, I didn’t know what the future would look like. Then to raise a hundred and eighty grand in April and May was something I would’ve never saw coming. I just wouldn’t have believed it in March. So I think that’s just and indication of how lucky we were to have supporters who really believed in what we were doing.
It was definitely a humbling experience, but I knew that because of the gravity of this seat that you have to have good fundraising. So I made that a priority from the beginning. I announced my candidacy in mid-February of last year and raised a hundred grand in March. George Scott, who ran for this seat in 2018, raised ninety grand in the whole primary then. We raised over six hundred and fifty and that was all from individual donors. Part of that was we did a lot of in person events where you can actually get to know people. I think that was a really vital part of it. But if you had told me a year ago that we would’ve raised over six hundred and fifty grand, I would’ve said you were lying.
How was your campaign set up in a way to compete with your opponents?
Brier: I actually think that’s where we had an advantage. You know he (DePasquale) has a great staff and I’m excited to get to know them. Our fundraising consultant was Scott Gale who ran Governor Wolf’s 2014 campaign and several of Senator Casey’s. He’s run over three hundred statewide races across the county since the mid-80’s, one of the best fundraising consultants in the country. Mark Putnam was our media advisor and consultant. Did both of President Obama’s campaigns and one of the most reputable in the country. Our pollster was Fred Yang, long time Senator Casey guy who works with Amy Klobuchar.
We had a really elite group of consultants who had been through the ringer before who could advise me on things that I never had to do before. So it was a combination of youthful energy and freshness on the front end with institutional knowledge on the back end. I think it ended up being a really good combination. It’s not like I never sat down and said, “Ok, Eugene has a really experienced team, what do we do?”. It was more good fortune honestly that I could assemble such a good team. I truly think that was a huge reason to why we could be so competitive.
How much did you rely on grassroots organizations for this campaign?
Brier: That was a big part of the campaign. You know we registered over one thousand students to vote across the district. We visited every college, every law school, over a dozen high schools because we knew that once you get the students on board you can get the parents on board. A lot of it is just showing young people and non voters that politics can be fun. This is something that’s actually enjoyable, we had a Brier for Congress basketball team in Harrisburg, where we registered the whole league. We did a rock the vote rally down in York with this brilliant musician where the only thing you had to do to get in was show your voter registration.
It’s trying to move beyond the typical events and do things that are part of the community. I think once we did that, people got to know us. They saw what we were doing as different and exciting and not just this run of the mill type campaign. It was something novel and fun to be around. And I think that really added to the vibe and the excitement of what we were doing.
You ran a very progressive campaign, do you believe that hurt you at all with some primary voters?
Brier: If anything I think it expanded our base of voters. You know we ran forty points ahead of Bernie Sanders in Dauphin County. So I think we struck a balance between progressive and practical. I honestly believe the matter that we framed the dialogue and the way we spoke about them was more important than the issues themselves. Doing town halls, doing all these events, there’s a layer of nuance that comes with dialogue that I think our campaign really benefitted from. So yeah, there were certain issues that I stick my flag into the ground and was really passionate about. What I think really gravitated people to our campaign was how we talked about the issues and why we talked about them.
I heard that a little bit in the beginning that it would be tough to win in a district like this with progressive values. But I think the primary numbers and the type of voters we had, showed that how you run your campaign is just as important as the issues you run on.
Central Pennsylvania has always been considered a bastion of Pennsylvania Conservative/Republican politics. Do you think campaigns like yours can change that?
Brier: I do. I think we’re seeing this now where these Black Lives Matter protests are taking place in Hummelstown, Carlisle and Hershey. Places that you know ten years ago, I don’t know would ever see an event like that. I think there’s a fierce urgency that we’re seeing in politics today and I think showing that you can run a campaign on progressive values and come close to winning is giving people freedom to know there are like-minded folks out there who share those values.
And so, Democrats have to be careful of you know “eating their own” and working together when it’s all said and done. I think if you do it in a civil way, then yea it can work. This is a changing area that’s kind of the epicenter of politics nationally. What happens here will dictate what happens in Pennsylvania, what happens in Pennsylvania will probably dictate who wins the White House in 2020. It’s kind of a microcosm of the country and the fact we can run a progressive campaign here and do well I think is a good signal of what’s to come in November.
Were you surprised at all at the final result of your primary?
Brier: I was surprised because I thought we were going to win. No, I always knew we were going to be competitive. Like I said I knew we had the money to scale our message. I knew we had the grassroots support to really fuel us in the last six to eight weeks. On Election Day itself you know we won the live vote across all three counties. So, I think there’s an element of peaking too late that came with the extension of the mail in ballots although it’s tough to say without knowing more about the demographics. But I always knew we’d be competitive and I think that’s because of all the work we put in on the front end.”
I was disappointed that we came up short, but when Eugene released that poll back in February that showed us down like 68 to 15, more than fifty points. You know to come within one county essentially of winning and winning the largest county in the district was definitely an accomplishment for us. Although at the end of the day it wasn’t quite enough to pull out a victory.
Now going into the general election, how are you going to commit yourself to helping democrats in the many competitive races in the Dauphin County area?
Brier: Really it’s doing anything I can. Whether that’s leveraging the power of our network for each of those candidates, spreading the word as much as I can. Volunteering where I can, fundraising where I can and just being as supportive as I can publicly is a great way to combine forces. We were able to establish a really genuine base of support of Democrats in the area. I think getting them to support these candidates is a really great way to get them over the finish line as well.”
Do you see yourself having a future in politics still, possibly future runs?
Brier: You know it’s tough to say right now, just because I’m so close to the Congressional race. I will say that I enjoyed every minute of running for office and I do want to stay in public service. I’d like to take care of my debt first, pay off those student loans. I want to build my credibility as an attorney and put my legal background to use in the community. But, I think staying involved in public service is really important, otherwise what’s the point? What’s the point of running if you’re just going to walk away after losing one race? When and what capacity that will be in is something that I still have to think on.”