Gripped by the spirit of, as he recalls it, “why the hell not?” Alex Torpey decided in 2011 that he would run for village president of South Orange, N.J., his hometown. At the time, there were plenty of worries to go around.
Residents of the town of 16,000 wondered whether a 23-year-old could handle a $33 million budget when their own kids of a similar age, as one put it, “still asks me how to send in claims to his health insurance company.” Torpey’s mother, while supportive enough to pen a Mothers’ Day endorsement letter shortly before the May vote, wondered if her idealistic, tech-savvy son should focus on acquiring a paying job first. Torpey himself was a touch uneasy about committing to staying put for the length of a four-year term in this 140-year-old “urban suburb,” a 30-minute train ride from New York City and full of quaint Victorians and cute downtown shops. Still, he ran. He knocked on doors, ran online ads, and talked about reining in property taxes and using the latest technologies to open up the work of South Orange’s government to its people. The election was a nail biter. In the end, Torpey won by 13 votes.
Three years later, Torpey is no longer worried. In fact, he is so sure that young people should make similar leaps into office that he is taking on a new project: Finding other emerging leaders and cultivating them.
As happens to politicians, Torpey has aged in office. Clean-shaven as a candidate, a post-election scruffy beard now runs down his neck. There, things get more formal. A crisp blue button-down holds in place an orange tie; both peak out of the neck of a trim black V-neck sweater. Clipped to his hip is a radio from his work volunteering as an EMT with the South Orange Rescue Squad.
Running towns, Torpey reasons, should naturally appeal to problem-solving geeks more intrigued by how systems work than by ideology. “They won’t be political, because they’re not political people,” he says. “[They’re] smart people who care about helping the community, the world.” His new ambition is, he says, “to try to get a couple percent more” such candidates on ballots around the country.
“I don’t care about the party,” says Torpey, a left-leaning independent. “If it exists or doesn’t isn’t part of the variable for me.” When he’s searching for other young leaders to work with, he says, the relevant metrics are honesty and authenticity. “It doesn’t matter if I disagree with you on how to solve the debt ceiling crisis,” he says. “I know you’re not going to bullshit with it.” And he sees himself as a member among those up-and-coming generations uneager to tie themselves to things like mortgages or automobiles. “I’m not interested in location that much,” says Torpey, whose family moved to town from neighboring Maplewood when he was in the fifth grade. “I’m interested in what the project is.”
Tapping technology for the betterment of politics has long been Torpey’s project. His father works in software, and the younger Torpey learned to build websites as a teenager. But he simultaneously cultivated an interest in what he defines as “why things are so fucked up, why things don’t work the way they should.” At 15, he started on a documentary on air pollution in New Jersey, which brought him to the door of his local assemblyman, Democrat John McKeon. “I didn’t have my license,” Torpey says. “So my mom had to drive me over to the interview.” He built a website for McKeon, who took the teenage Torpey on a formative tour of the State House in Trenton.
Torpey was busy online, too. His website, which he built at age 16, is dedicated to “Bringing Ideas to Action.” It housed a forum for open dialogue, inspired by the idea that in an era of a one-sided press, citizens should focus on cultivating their open opinions. “Everyone is fallible,” the site reads, “and I would love to hear what other people have to say about what I think.” The site asks for donations, telling generous users that “you will know that you have helped spread political awareness to kids, who are the future of this country.”
Looking for a college where he could hand craft his educational experience, Torpey enrolled at Hampshire College in 2005. He would go onto to chair the Community Council, a sort of student government at the school of just 1,400 students. As a floppy-haired undergrad, he wrote a 220-page thesis on rethinking the drinking age, starting with ditching the notion of federal highway mandates that got in the way of local conversations about the right way to handle alcohol. “The idea,” he wrote, “is to throw out our antiquated notions regarding alcohol policy in favor of policies that are based in pragmatic and conclusive scientific evidence — not political ideologies.”
With college done, Torpey returned to South Orange. He picked up a master’s in public administration from Manhattan’s John Jay College and served on local boards and committees. At the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference on technology and politics in New York, he heard a developer speak about a budding software platform called NationBuilder, which makes it relatively easy to create the sort of online organizations that were once the exclusive province of well-funded professionals. It struck Torpey as just the sort of tool a young, unfunded candidate like him could use. Finally deciding to run for village president, he says, was a decision he spent months “agonizing” over. But the truth is that, by the time he was 23, he’d been preparing for such a moment for more nearly a third of his life.
After pulling out his village president win over a member of the town’s six-member Board of Trustees, he got to work. He put the town’s budget online in an interactive tool called OpenGov, calling it an example of “groundbreaking transparency.” It’s 30 to 40 hours a week worth of work, he says: Running board meetings, officiating marriages, negotiating contracts on the city’s behalf, working with the police department, and pursuing more of his own ideas, like bringing ZipCar to town. He still can find himself amazed by the position where a grand total of 706 voters put him.
“You get to be a part of the process,” he says, gnawing on a cheesesteak supreme and home fries at the Blue Plate Special, a homey cafe on Irvington Avenue. (“You could order the Torpey,” he suggests. It’s a $7.95 diced Taylor ham, peppers, onions and American cheese omelet.) “We live in an amazing country where I can come in out of nowhere and do this.”
On the ground in South Orange, the project at hand — running a town of 16,000 people — can be a painful affair, and some people aren’t interested collaborative dialogue. As we eat lunch, a bash-Torpey session rages on Twitter. (The site is familiar ground for him. Inc. Magazine once dubbed him “The Social Media Mayor.”) The proximate cause for today’s dust-up is Torpey’s backing of a tweak to downtown zoning laws in a process that his online critics call shadowy.
“If I sued everytime [sic] Torpey botched or circumvented a process it would be a full-time job.” tweets a former trustee. “Nice transparency!” mocks the @AlexTorpay satirical account. More issues get thrown into the complaint soup. Torpey, who lives in a rented apartment down by the train station, gets slammed for not paying a homeowner’s property taxes. And sour feelings linger from a failed bid to both give the unpaid village president a $2,800 annual stipend and change the village charter to formally title his position “mayor” instead of “village president.” The latter is painted as evidence of a self-promotional streak. “Classist,” Torpey calls the assumption that a mayor — er, village president — should work for free.
Torpey dismisses many of his most vocal critics as part of “psychotically obsessed” minority who get an outsized hearing in town affairs. Still, they clearly perplex him. To them, “everything I do is wrong,” he says. “Everything.” He finds it a bit ironic that his elders engage in snarky online banter, the sort of behavior usually associated with millennials like him
It’s nearly enough to turn people off of politics, he says, but when he picks his head up from his phone, Torpey explains that he’s still convinced a new breed of people could be convinced to look at public service as a positive endeavor with something of an escape hatch. His own hatch is now in development. Along with two Washington, D.C.-based partners — Aaron “The Organizer” Straus Garcia and Ryan “The Techie” Morgan, Torpey (“The Mayor”) is working on Veracity Media, a digital strategy consulting shop.
The firms help candidates and others tap tech the same way Torpey did in his campaign. He points to work Veracity is doing for Ro Khanna, a tech industry-backed Democrat running for Congress from Silicon Valley; Marianne Williamson, an author and activist running as an independent for the Los Angeles-area seat vacated, after 40 years, by longtime Rep. Henry Waxman; and Evan Falchuk, an independent for governor of Massachusetts; as well as a good helping of local races.
Veracity helps campaigns figure out how to organize databases of potential supporters, and how $200 saved from printing one-color yard signs could go to targeted Facebook ads — enough, perhaps, to swing a super-local race like his, where a grand total of 1,402 people voted. It’s work that makes Torpey into a rare sort of player-coach. “You see the front side of it and the back side of it,” he says. “And you’re like, ‘okay, I understand how this is put together now.‘”
It’s a win-win, as he sees it. With low-profile and first-time candidates, Veracity cuts a them a very good deal, sometimes working for free. “We’re investing in them and hopefully they’ll want to work with us next time around,” he says. “We want to continue to build out a network of people who are not really ideological. It’s good for business, and it’s good for getting things done.” But amassing loyalty and allies through free work can be difficult to sustain in the sort term. The firm is looking to supplement that sort of campaign work with more even-keeled and deeper-pocketed clients.
The ambition is for Veracity to help subsidize the growth of a non-profit Torpey and his allies call Rethink Leadership to address what he sees as a major flaw of the U.S.: It “lacks objective leadership cultivation mechanisms.”
“The hold that parties have on politicians largely has to do with them needing resources” — fundraising, turning people out to vote, access to the press and distribution channels — “but those things are starting to be replaced,” he says, with everything from inexpensive online ads to low-cost software tools to free social media. The precise mechanics for how Rethink Leadership will work are still fuzzy, but the goal is to help new leaders come out of the wilderness and win even without much money and machine backing.
One thing he’s far more confident of, he says, is that cities like South Orange will act as a magnet to technologists who, in part due to the Obama campaigns, see politics as a problem worthy of chewing on. You get to try hands-on things, like the automated license-plate readers the South Orange Police Department now uses. “In five, ten years,” Torpey predicts of the influx of young technologists, “it’s going to be crazy.”
He sees a possible path from there. These public servants can take their tangible record of decisions and results, and perhaps when they’ve reached the ripe old age of, say, 30, maybe run for Congress. Or they might, instead, move on to their own projects. One that Torpey has mulled over lately, inspired by a TED talk by Eli Beer and informed by a recent trip to visiting a couple of NGO-working friends in Rwanda, is harnessing a city fleet of motorcycle taxis to act as emergency first-responders. That, too, he says, is a problem worthy of trying to solve, same as negotiating a wonky contract for the South Orange Performing Arts Center left behind by past administrations.
“I’m not really worried what my job is going to be next,” Torpey says. “Something else will come up.” He may or may not run for reelection when his term is up in spring 2015. He hasn’t thought about it much one way or the other, he says. Right now, he wants to talk about how a path like his is possible.
“You don’t have to go to D.C. and do an internship,” he says. “You don’t have to work your way up the chain. Just jump right in in your town, on the school board or on the town council — or as the mayor. Just get your hands dirty and see what happens.” He’s seen how politicians clinging to “the office” have a way of curdling politics, but that, too, is going away. “I can’t imagine any person born after, I dunno, 1980 holding office for 40 years,” Torpey says after the mention of Waxman’s name. “People have trouble holding jobs for a year or two.” Having good options to create change outside electoral politics, as he sees it, makes you less clingy.
Still, the sense of destiny that convinces you to become your parents’ mayor doesn’t erase all doubts. He’s learned to ignore his critics. Mostly. He tries not to show up to his own lunchtime Twitter thrashing. But he cannot resist posting an unaddressed tweet, a Maya Angelou quote: “Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.” He insists he remains his own worst critic. When he starts brooding about what his 23-year-old self got his 26-year-old self himself into, he tries to force himself to do a reality check about how local politics has long been practiced in the United States. “I’m like, ‘Wait a second. Nobody has done it right before me, and they’ve all been much older.’”
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.