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In 2004, Joe Trippi (San Jose State) was done with presidential politics. The hours were long, the days stressful. But that same year he found himself working for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign because he sincerely believed, with every ounce of the tenacious, single-mindedness, that would eventually make Dean’s campaign exceptional, that he was making a difference.

While Barack Obama utilized the Internet and social media to create the grassroots movement that would help elect him as Commander-in-Chief, what is not as well known is that Sigma Nu alumnus Joe Trippi (San Jose State) was the first to come up with the idea during his time leading Dean’s campaign.

Back then, social media was a toddler, just steadying itself on wobbly legs. Trippi was the national campaign manager for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and revolutionized the use of the Internet as a fund-raising tool (bringing in large amounts of money with small individual donations, averaging $100), giving Dean a substantial chance at the Democratic nomination. Dean’s fiery, passionate speeches are well remembered and Trippi was so inspired by him that he agreed to manage Dean’s campaign, despite the 14-year intermission since he last worked on a presidential campaign (Trippi worked on the campaigns of both Gary Hart and Dick Gephardt in 1988). Trippi didn’t just create the campaign’s web presence, but actually interacted with supporters, fueling their energy for Dean.

Trippi’s opening jaunt into politics happened while he was a student at San Jose State University (SJSU) when he became involved in a local City Council race. His membership on the student government council at SJSU led to his joining Sigma Nu; he became friends with fellow council member, Ed Valasquez, whose leadership style Trippi says he was drawn to, despite him being of a different political stripe. He met other people in the chapter, admired the spirit of Sigma Nu, and joined the next semester.

Trippi’s major was engineering, but after testing the political waters, he got hooked. Some of his achievements include leading the push to remove the then president of SJSU after he came out against affirmative action and bringing attention to the fact that several retail stores on campus banked with an institution that supported apartheid in South Africa.

“Left my dream of being an aeronautical engineer, left my books, and my belongings and drove my old, beat up Ford Pinto to Des Moines, Iowa the day after Senator Kennedy entered the race.”

Trippi’s first opportunity to work on a national campaign came when Ted Kennedy ran for president in 1980, where he was a floor manager of the Texas and Utah delegations during the Democratic Convention. In fact, he left college shortly before he was slated to graduate.

“I left everything,” said Trippi in a 2004 interview. “Left my dream of being an aeronautical engineer, left my books, and my belongings and drove my old, beat up Ford Pinto to Des Moines, Iowa the day after Senator Kennedy entered the race.”

In 1984, he was one of the top organizers for Walter Mondale’s bid for president. But by the late 80s, he had become a little disillusioned with presidential politics and took a step back. Then he saw Dean in action and his political flame was lit once again.

Dean ended up losing to John Kerry, who would then lose the presidential election to the incumbent George W. Bush. But Trippi’s impact on Democratic politics was profound, paving the way for President Barack Obama to use grassroots enthusiasm to secure the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency. And Trippi didn’t completely abandon politics; he owns a consulting business and has done work on numerous campaigns, albeit those of the local and state variety. In 2010, he served as a senior strategist and media consultant on Jerry Brown’s successful gubernatorial campaign in California. The Brown campaign ads won four Pollie awards from the American Association for Political Consultants.

Nowadays, Trippi has added Fox News contributor to his long roster of accomplishments. Although he has received some disapproval from the left, he enjoys the intellectual challenge. And considering recent events in the political realm, his honest and experienced outlook is needed now more than ever.

“We’re experiencing a complete breakdown in trust everywhere,” says Trippi. “People aren’t trusting their government, consumers aren’t trusting companies, and people are having a tougher and tougher time trusting their news. People are constantly asking, ‘Do I trust the information?’”

Sigma Nu is one of the only fraternities to hold “Truth” as one of its founding values, but what does that mean for a cultural climate where trust is at a premium? Trippi recounts the story of the 1796 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Adams’ representatives put people on horses and had them go riding through colonial towns screaming “Jefferson is dead!” Obviously this was not true, but people started believing it because they had not seen Jefferson in person and there was no way to verify news reports. Jefferson had to get his people on horses and follow the same tactic to correct the misinformation.

"People are constantly asking, ‘Do I trust the information?’”

“How did people decide what was true? It all depended on whether they knew the guy on the horse and trusted him to provide good information,” says Trippi. “If I trust the person giving me the information then I trust the information. Trust won’t come from the top anymore. Trust and truth now occurs peer to peer. That’s why instilling that foundation for learning to speak the truth is so important for leadership.”

Another important attribute is authenticity. Trippi says that excellent leaders need to have a strong sense of self-awareness.

“Reading off a teleprompter or reading a script is not the same as just talking from where they are and what they know best,” says Trippi. “Building credibility is crucial for successful leadership, especially in this era where people don’t trust the media as much. When people become less trusting of institutions, leaders need to step up and exude trust.”

For fraternities to stay relevant in the future, Trippi says they simply need to lead and educate people on important issues, something that he feels is missing from much of the national dialogue and politics today.

“This means showing what truth means and demonstrating why we need to build trust,” says Trippi. “If this happened on every campus it would be an incredible thing for the country. It would prove the value of our organization.”

Politics and marketing overlap and while people respond to a candidates’ position on an issue, successful communication on those issues is vital. What Trippi looks for in a potential hire, the trait he values across industry lines, is the ability to build trust creatively.

“In my work on campaigns, the more creative you are about moving your message out there, the more people you will attract. Look for people who share your core values and bring a creative spark. Even if it means you get fewer people in the short term, it’s still far better to build the house on those members.”

When he worked on Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign, Trippi says that his boss at the time gave him some sage advice that still makes an impact on him today: always know what you want.

“Particularly in politics, all of the higher-ups, candidates in politics or executives in business, know what they want from you to help them achieve their goals,” says Trippi. “The most important thing for a young person is to understand what you want from each experience you find yourself in. What my boss was trying to tell me was that I have to always follow my core belief. It may put you at odds with other interests and it may be a difficult decision. But that advice has always served me well.”

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