Josh Berthume runs Swash Labs, a local creative agency based right here in our own little Denton. Maybe you've seen their sign before if you've ever been stuck at the light at University and N. Locust. It's blue and has polka dots. Normally, when we think of Swash Labs we basically imagine it as some kind of weird mix between Mad Men and Animal House, but maybe that's just because we follow lots of their employees on Twitter. The truth is that Swash Labs not only helps with ad campaigns all over the place (they're especially committed to helping brands in our very own city), but they also have some great experience with political campaigns both here and overseas. We figured Politics Week was a great time to pick Berthume's brain about his opinions on the upcoming city elections.
Josh, can you give us a little bit of information on your background? I know that you’ve worked on several political campaigns in the past and you've been rumored to work on them internationally…
No international campaigns yet, although for five years I did work for a London-based global political risk analysis firm called Exclusive Analysis, modeling open source intelligence on violent risk and terrorism. That was while while I got my masters in political science and behavioral economics from UNT. From 2004-2008, I worked in statewide politics on various campaigns in communications and digital strategy, and also wrote extensively on politics for many publications. Prior to that, it was all digital communications, creative media, and early (very early) social media, from 1998 on.
How long have you lived in Denton now? And how long have you owned/operated Swash Labs?
I have lived in Denton since 2000, and we started Swash Labs in October of 2010.
(Obligatory taco related question…) Favorite taco in Denton?
I am taco agnostic. Depending on my mood or what kind of day it is, I might be way into Mi Casita or totally enamored with Sabrocita. My major sin as a Dentonite is that I haven’t been to Taco Lady yet, although now that this news is public I imagine it won’t be long until someone takes me there. PS to your readers: I am available for impromptu taco dates.
The local elections are coming up in just over a month from now… what has your experience with local elections here in Denton been like?
The more I get to know the city (as a place) and The City (as an institution), the impressed I am with the people in public service here. Denton has an interesting flavor in that the state and federal voting blocs can seem so totally divorced in preferred policy from the local and municipal stuff, but that really means that the people that care about Denton are working on it, which I like.
Probably the most wrong I have ever been in political prediction came out of local politics, when I sat in Kevin Roden’s living room at his first big campaign meeting and told him the rock was likely too big to roll up the hill. He proved me wrong and I’m very glad he did. That unlocked something in me and allowed me to brush off the last bits of cynicism left over from working in Democratic politics in Texas.
What do you think are the top issues facing Denton right now?
Denton is growing fast and there’s definitely a wrong way to handle that. Many candidates and citizens have strong ideas about sustainable development, about rehabbing some parts of the city as a priority over building new stuff, and about how to encourage outside businesses to locate here, as well as how to grow our own. This isn’t necessarily sexy top shelf argumentative hot button issue stuff, but it is the sausage-making that shapes and defines a city over the long haul. City leaders are mindful of and working on everything from how we treat our artists to how we treat our nigh-on abandoned neighborhoods to how we regulate growth in a way that makes sense. None of the choices they make are perfect, they don’t ever get it all the way right, and none of the outcomes are satisfactory to everyone. But all of these small corrections trend towards the greater good over the long haul, and that’s encouraging to see.
What do you feel is missing from the current campaign climate?
Just like in every campaign, no one is talking about poverty enough. As a fast growing and relatively well-managed city, Denton could be right on the front lines of innovation when it comes to caring for hungry and homeless people. As a city, we aren’t, and we could be.
What could our candidates be doing better?
Civic candidates tend to do pretty well, actually. The real contenders show up to candidate forums and make themselves available to the public. There’s a rawness in those answers that you don’t get to see when someone turns pro, for lack of a better word, and I always favor authenticity, even if it is borne of inexperience. In fact, I prefer it that way.
That’s a mechanics answer, though. I also always want to see real policy proposals that get rigorously debated, but the field doesn’t always support that kind of wonkery, even if we would benefit from it as a society and a city.
What would you consider to be a successful voter turnout?
City elections tend to trend around 6 or 7%, so 10% would be a positive move for turnout. 15% would really blow my hair back. 20% turnout probably means somebody messed up the count.
Thoughts on votedenton.org?
I came up in the DIY, figure-it-out age of the internet, so I like anything that takes an idea and fast-hacks it into being useful. I think it serves a noble purpose and if I could see the traffic logs they would probably depress me, because it is a tool that people should be using and should be proud to have around.
Anything you’d like to add to your comments? (Here’ s your chance at a soapbox…)
Politics is about choices, and as a community, we are the choices we make. This includes choices like who or what to vote for, but also choices like whether or not to participate, or what we talk about. It is easy to be cynical about politics and say that elections don’t matter, but I choose to believe they do, and I think the last few decades have proven — sometimes in a very severe way — that who governs matters a great deal and has one hell of an impact on your day-to-day life.
It is easy to be cynical; it is more difficult to pay attention, and to know what’s going on, and to get invested or believe in something very real that can so easily and so often disappoint you. It is hard work. But I think anyone really interested in or committed to growing Denton into the kind of city it can be is happy to do that hard work. I think we choose as a community to grow Denton and make it better, and it isn’t ever too late to get going.
So basically, get off your ass and do some work on something you care about, whether it’s bike lanes or payday loans or gas drilling or parks or poverty. The jug fills drop by drop. Every bit helps and the benefit you derive from being here when Denton gets where it’s going will be one awesome return on your investment.