New Haven State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield tweets twice as much as Linda McMahon—and he does all the work himself. The state’s top-tweeting politician told a local social-networking gathering how he has helped forge the online path for Connecticut politicians, and why.
Holder-Winfield (at left in photo) spoke on a panel Tuesday with two fellow politicians (and Heath Fahle of the Yankee Institute For Public Policy, at right) at King’s Court By the River, 20 Grand Ave., as part of Social Web Connecticut Week. The topic at hand was how citizens and politicians use web tools like Twitter and Facebook to communicate.
At a time when politicians across the nation grapple with how to manage their public and private personas through social networks, Holder-Winfield emerged as a staunch proponent of diving into the online world. He scored U.S. Senate hopeful McMahon for what he called inauthentic posts on her Twitter page—and issued a call to fellow legislators to be more courageous, open and accessible online.
The 36-year-old freshman legislator, who represents New Haven’s 94th General Assembly District, got his start in social networks early on. Before running for office, he used the web for community organizing. When he first emerged as a candidate in 2008, Holder-Winfield beat an opponent who was backed by the mayor’s machine. Holder-Winfield built his underdog campaign on cheap, direct communication through Facebook and Youtube videos, at a time when that was still rare.
While in office, he has continued to keep people in the loop by posting live reports from the Capitol on Facebook and Twitter.
Last October, when mayoral candidates faced off in a public debate, Holder-Winfield live-blogged the event on Facebook. He served as an online pundit, breaking news and analyzing the performances in his own virtual spin-zone.
Since he joined Twitter in February 2009, Holder-Winfield has cranked out over 2,280 messages on his Twitter page.
Holder-Winfield averages 4.4 tweets per day—by far the most of any politician in the state, according to TweetCT.org, a website set up by the Yankee Institute For Public Policy. The site aggregates and analyzes twitter feeds of state politicians.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Oz Griebel ranks second, with 2.3 tweets per day. Linda McMahon ranks third, with 2.0.
While others use campaign staffers to dispatch messages, Holder-Winfield prides himself in sending all the tweets himself. He said his phone is always buzzing, too. If he hadn’t been on the panel, he said, he would have live-blogged Tuesday’s event. Tweeting sounds more authentic when it’s done by the politician, Holder-Winfield argued.
State Rep. Matt Lesser, who at 27 years old is the youngest legislator in the state, agreed with his colleague.
“Gary is authentic and tweets himself, and Linda McMahon doesn’t,” Lesser opined. “People will follow the more authentic, engaging” person.
With 433 followers on Twitter, Holder-Winfield doesn’t come close to having the largest audience—U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd claims that title, with 11,983 followers.
Holder-Winfield said Tuesday that the number of followers doesn’t matter—it’s the level to which they are engaged. That’s where Holder-Winfield excels.
He said while many public figures use Facebook to report on their whereabouts, he prefers to use it as an organizing tool.
“I use it to engage people,” he said. “It’s an important tool that not many of the legislators know the value of.”
For example: When people had problems with the unemployment benefit filing system—and they couldn’t get state workers on the phone to help them—the legislator created a Facebook page to put pressure on Gov. M. Jodi Rell. Dissatisfied with Rell’s response to the problem, he encouraged Facebook users to flood Rell’s office with phone calls at the same time, to give her a taste of what unemployed folks were going through. The tactic worked, he said.
Recently, Holder-Winfield has been using the summer recess to build up his online network. Over the past three weeks, he has racked up 300 new Facebook friends from his district, he said.
How did he do it?
“I went looking for them,” he said. He used a combination of new and old political tools: He took a voters registration list for his district, and systematically went through the names to see if they had Facebook accounts.
If they did, he’d send them a note explaining who he is, and asking them to connect. Over half of them accepted his request, he said.
Discussions that take place on his Facebook page have influenced the arguments he uses on the legislative floor, Holder-Winfield said. And the medium helps him keep in touch with the younger folks in his district, who are even more deeply embedded in the online world.
“This has been a way to bring people in and give them a voice,” he said. “It’s changed the way that politics are done in my district.”
Being active on social networks helped build momentum behind the freshman legislator’s anti-death penalty crusade. Holder-Winfield’s abolition bill made it through both legislative bodies, but died in a Rell veto. Because of social media, he was able to draw attention to the issue from journalists, and score “an inordinate amount of press” for a freshman legislator, he said.
Holder-Winfield issued a call to fellow legislators to follow in his lead and put more time into new ways of communicating.
“I just don’t think it’s that difficult,” he said, pulling out his buzzing cell phone from his hip holster to demonstrate. “It’s actually pretty easy.”