Civic News

Dave Cole, the South Jersey hacker who ran for Congress, on why he lost

Cole, who helped introduce open source to the White House, lost in the primary. "I'm not sure how to beat the system yet," he said, "but we can't give up on it."
Dave Cole lost his bid for Congress.

Cole, a software developer who helped introduce open source to the White House during his time with the Obama administration, ran last spring in the Democratic primary for his home district, which covers parts of South Jersey. He got 18 percent of the vote, losing to Bill Hughes, Jr., the party-backed candidate.

Though he made national headlines for posting his political proposals on developer collaboration platform GitHub, he said he knew the “Internet stuff” wasn’t going to make that much of a difference, in part because voters in the primary election skew older.

Voter turnout is one of the many factors that contribute to the political system’s brokenness, said Cole, 29, of Sewell, N.J.

There’s the amount of money you have to raise to stand a fighting chance: “Who’s going to come up with $3 to $5 million to run in South Jersey when you have double digit unemployment?” he said.

There’s the “design problem” on the ballot, if you’re a candidate who’s not backed by the party: your name won’t be aligned with all the household names on the ticket, making it way less likely for someone to choose you (see here and here).

Still, he hasn’t turned his back on politics, which he believes you can’t ignore. Politics, he said, are a means to an end.

“I’m not sure how to beat the system yet,” he said, “but we can’t give up on it.”

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We chatted with Cole, who grew up in South Jersey and returned last December to be closer to family, about working on Healthcare.gov, the struggles of revamping WhiteHouse.gov and the risk he took on the Obama campaign. Find the highlights from our conversation below.

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Current gig: Freelance software consulting.

Buzzy past job: Cole worked on the Obama campaign’s “much mythicized” data team in 2008, as Cole put it. He landed there after quitting his jobs at Rutgers, his alma mater, to volunteer for the Obama campaign. “I quit my job and went full throttle. I put everything on my credit card,” he said. One month later, he got hired as an organizer in Kentucky.

On why it was so hard to revamp the WhiteHouse.gov website: The site used a proprietary content management system (versus an open source one like Drupal), and if the team wanted to make any changes, they had to mock up the changes and wait one to two weeks for an outside team to implement them. “We didn’t have the legal rights to change the code [behind the website]. It wasn’t in the contract,” he said. “We had to renegotiate the terms of the contract so our developers could have access to it.” During his tenure as Senior Advisor to the CIO of the Executive Office, Cole implemented Drupal as the content management system for WhiteHouse.gov (and contributed pieces of code back to the Drupal community).

On why he left the White House: “It was a burnout job for sure.” Cole said he was growing exhausted and wanted to try something new.

On working on Healthcare.gov: “‘I worked on the part that works’ is what I always have to say,” Cole said. After he left the White House, he went to D.C.-based software firm Development Seed and worked on the front end and content side of the site. (“They didn’t try hard enough to bring in the right talent” to build the back end of the site, Cole said). Read more about Cole’s work and the open nature of Healthcare.gov on The Atlantic.

On why he ran for Congress: A number of factors made him feel like it was the “right opportunity to jump in,” including seeing the recession’s impact on South Jersey (“Most people I know have left. There just aren’t the jobs,” he said) and the momentum from Obama’s campaign. Read more about his candidacy on Wired.

On why he put his campaign proposals on GitHub: “We wanted to show what a digital campaign could look like, aside from, say, Facebook and Twitter ads, which we also used.”

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