Political novice leads "tough nerd" to victory

December 6, 2010

Jeff Barnes (MPP '09) had never run a political campaign before Michigan gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder promoted him to campaign manager in August. The choice made sense for Snyder, a technology entrepreneur running for his first public office. He wanted voters to believe that political experience is not a prerequisite for leadership—and no one demonstrates that better than Barnes, a former Army captain.


Jeffrey Barnes with Rick Snyder

Jeff Barnes and Governor-elect Rick Snyder

"Jeff's been a great asset," said Snyder during a campaign stop at the Fox Run retirement community in Novi. "He's just an outstanding individual. That's the kind of leadership we need to grow and nurture in our state."

Barnes served 10 years in the Army, with 350 soldiers under his final command in Iraq before coming to the Ford School in 2007. Two years later, he chaired the annual Ford School charity auction, raising $12,000 for Operation Homefront, which provides emergency funds to military families. Barnes finds his Army experience more relevant everyday.

"You learn to use the assets that you have available and employ them in a way that will benefit the mission the most. In a political campaign it's very much the same," he said. "You have to use your different assets—your communications department, your finance team—and leverage their expertise in a way to make informed decisions and good recommendations to the boss."

Interns are no exception, said John Lin (BA '10). Barnes let Lin help write the health care policy as an intern two summers ago.

"He's very inclusive," said Lin, whom Barnes later hired as his assistant. "Even if you might be on the very bottom rung

of the campaign, you still feel like you had a part in it. You're always welcome in his office."

Barnes' engaging personality helped him make the transition from soldier to student.

"It was funny because I'd been out of the classroom for 10 years," he said. "To come back and see the technology in place and a beautiful new building, it was hard to hold back, so I jumped in."

The Applied Policy Seminar, now called Strategic Public Policy Consulting or SPPC, with professor Liz Gerber gave Barnes his first engagement in Michigan state issues. He consulted for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, evaluating the proposal for a second bridge to Canada, known as the Detroit River International Crossing Project.

In the classroom, Barnes shared his experiences but did not dominate the discussion. (He served in South Korea and Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as Iraq, with two Bronze Stars among his commendations.) His classmates must have liked what they heard; they elected him to speak on their behalf at the 2009 commencement ceremony.

"He had a quiet charisma, a kind of leadership quality that really made people listen to him," said Ambassador Mel Levitsky, who had Barnes in two classes at Weill Hall. "He was not the type to continually raise his hand and talk, but when he had something to say it was always very relevant and very useful."

Levitsky expressed surprise at Barnes's foray into state politics after he had devoted much of his Ford School experience to national security. Upon graduation, Barnes did indeed have an offer to consult for the Department of Defense.

The alternative was to join the Snyder campaign, which would allow Barnes and his wife, Taryn, to stay in Ann Arbor. Taryn, also an Army veteran, is a graduate student in the Ross School of Business.

"One of the most difficult things in the military is that you move in and out of communities that you never really get to call home," said Barnes, a Newark, OH, native. "When my wife and I decided to leave the military, we wanted to be a part of the community."

A meeting with Snyder convinced Barnes his national security aspirations could wait. He helped Snyder draft his initial policy platform—known as Rick's 10-Point Plan to Reinvent Michigan.

"He helped lead our policy effort, and if you go to our website, we have the finest white papers of any candidate in the country," boasted Snyder, who beat out Democrat Virg Bernero by nearly 600,000 votes.

Barnes then transitioned to operations manager, directing the daily activities of 50 campaign staff and volunteers. Life has been a whirlwind ever since, and he's savored every minute.

"It's fun to be in this, to be able to see this stuff take place each and every day," Barnes said. "You really feel like you're in a defining moment in Michigan's history. It's an honor and a privilege to be a part of it."

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2010 State & Hill here.