Political for Organizing with Riley Kilburg

Riley Kilburg, the deputy political director for Hillary for Iowa, has been organizing in Iowa since he was in high school. Born and raised in Iowa, Riley has had the privilege of working hard in multiple historical organizing movements throughout the years—first as a volunteer on then-Senator Obama’s 2008 campaign, next throughout college for the president’s reelection, and finally working to help Hillary Clinton win the Iowa caucus, the Nevada caucus, and now the general election.

“Organizing is the bread and butter of Democratic campaigns. It’s how we win. I think it’s incredibly important that all Democratic campaign staffers work as an organizer at one point or another because all other departments on a campaign exist to support organizing.”

With so much experience organizing, Riley understands just how crucial the skills he learned while organizing are to his success. Riley may be working in the political department now, but he still sees himself as an organizer, just of a different group of people. He also knows that he best serves his campaign when his work creates opportunities for organizers to expand their efforts.

It was in part due to his experience, in part due to his deeply embedded understanding of the political landscape in Iowa, and in part due to his understanding of the way other departments should support organizers, that Riley was able to make the transition to political after over a year spent organizing on the Hillary campaign. All of these experiences and skills made Riley a perfect candidate for his new role, but Riley also stood out because he was willing to advocate for himself.

 “Advocating for yourself and what you want is important in any professional setting. By having conversations and demonstrating that I could do the work and bring something unique and valuable to the political team, I was able to move into the position I have now.”

Now, as deputy political director, Riley manages political relationships throughout the state with coalition partners, labor partners, elected officials, and party activists while also working on surrogate and principal trips—planning, building, and executing schedules, travel, and political engagement with grassroots and grasstops activists across the state.

Riley works with activists and leaders who are already politically engaged, finding ways to plug them into his organization. This relationship management, recruitment, and activation is executed in many different ways. He may work with a partner to pull together a roundtable or to reach out to their organization’s membership to deliver 20 volunteers for a Weekend of Action. Like all relationships, he also works to meet the needs of his partners—finding surrogates when a group wants to hear a campaign update or connecting supporters to an effective way to contribute.

Riley sees everything he and his team does as supplementary to organizing and he’s rightfully proud to be a part of a political team whose focus is adding capacity to the organizing program. It’s because the work of an organizer and a deputy political director are so similar and so intertwined that Riley was uniquely prepared for his job.

Here are just a few ways Riley’s organizing background helps him today:

  • Organizing taught Riley how to perform under pressure. “Organizing taught me how to get things done. Failure is not an option as an organizer.”
  • It helped him perfect his recruitment and relationship building skills. These same skills that are fundamental for organizing are fundamental for political work.
  • Organizing taught him the importance of data collection and utilization. Political staff know relationship building comes with perfect tracking—data gives him a way to reach and engage more partners.
  • Organizing required Riley to perfect his hard ask. Thanks to Riley’s perfected hard ask, he’s more likely to encourage coalition partners to engage their networks to add to volunteer efforts.

These experiences help Riley do his job better every day and give him the foundation he needs to become even better at the skills he uses now—skills like attention to detail, clear communication, and constant availability.

Without organizing, Riley would not be where he is today—and without organizing, Riley wouldn’t be able to do his job in a way that’s helpful to the important work of organizers in his state.  ∆

To give you an inside look into the work that Riley does to support organizers, check out a sample day in his life. On this day, Riley travels across the state to staff two events: one with Senator Tim Kaine and his wife Anne Holton in Ames and a phone bank in Cedar Rapids with Anne.


September 19, 2016

6:30 AM    Start my day. Today I need extra energy, so I make sure to eat breakfast.

8:30 AM   Arrive at the office and follow up on any emails from overnight or that morning. Print off any needed materials and updated lists for the event. Most of my prep I do the day before, but I make sure I have my event supply kit stocked with clipboards, pens, tape, stickers, staff credentials, string/safety pins, and signs for Table A/Table B/Reserved/ADA Seating.

10:00 AM   Arrive on-site and hold a walk-through with the Advance team. They walk us through the procedure for checking people in through security, signing people into the event, logistics for the photoline, ADA assistance and tracking things we need to be aware of (such as crowd count or any malicious actors).

10:30 AM   Set up the organizing and political check-ins. Advance shows up the day before to set up the entire venue. We’re responsible for training volunteers at the event to make sure that we get everyone checked in efficiently and on-time. We also collect information so we can follow up about voting early or volunteering if we couldn’t get them to sign up for a volunteer shift at the event itself.

11:30 AM   Doors open and I start to float around. Members of the political team will help check in our participants. We check in anyone who is a part of the pre-program and super-volunteers. These people may have the chance to meet Senator Kaine before or after the event! I spend my time shuffling people around and getting them prepped for security (for when the principal arrives).

1:45 PM   Pre-program starts. It’s my job to make sure these people are backstage and ready to go. In the days leading up to the event, I will assist in identifying locals who are interested in saying the Pledge of Allegiance, singing the National Anthem and introducing Senator Kaine

2:15 PM   Shortly after the pre-program, Senator Kaine arrives and greets some volunteers as well as local elected officials and Democratic leaders backstage. I assist in keeping this process moving to keep the entire program on schedule.

2:30 PM   30 minutes late, Senator Kaine takes the stage with his wife, Anne Holton, to make remarks. It’s common for principals and surrogates to run a little late because of their very busy schedules, but the students and Ames community are excited to see the next VPOTUS!

3:00 PM   Senator Kaine and Hon. Anne Holton conclude their remarks and work the rope line. I wait for this to wrap up and see if there is anything needed of me before I hit the road. Anne Holton is staying behind in Iowa to hold a few more events! I’m off to Cedar Rapids to help prep for an event later in the evening, while my boss heads to Cedar Falls for an education panel with Anne Holton.

5:30 PM   I arrive in Cedar Rapids and touch base with the advance team. I talk with the local political folks in the room, just chit-chatting to hear their take on how things are going on the ground.

6:00 PM   Anne Holton is late so while we wait for her to come to the phone bank we make calls to voters in the area!

7:00 PM   Anne Holton arrives to thank volunteers at the phonebank and make some calls!

7:45 PM   Anne Holton departs. I stay for a bit longer to thank people for coming and say goodbye to our political folks in the room.

8:00 PM   I depart for Des Moines.

10:30 PM   I arrive back in Des Moines and follow up from the many, many missed emails that I neglected while out on the road about upcoming trips, daily politics that happened and any updates on our constituency programs. Oh, and I eat dinner.

11:30 PM   Bed.