Alex Knox, the name behind Tom Butt’s winning campaign for mayor
on November 18, 2014
Alex Knox, 26, is wearing a blue shirt, grey suit and smiling into his ice water. His mouth becomes a cartoon shape when he smiles, a bright crescent. It is a week after the election, and Knox looks relaxed – very different from when we first met on the eve of the election.
It was around 7 p.m. on Nov. 3, 13 hours before the polling stations would open. Knox, Tom Butt’s campaign manager, welcomed me at the front door of Interactive Resource, where the campaign had set up its headquarters, flashing his classic smile. The stress of the campaign could be seen on his face. He had red streaks in his eyes and his beard was unshaved. RPA volunteers were coming and going, wearing dark blue T-shirts.
For Knox, the preceding three months had been a blur of making thousands of phone calls, building the campaign infrastructure, getting the campaign website functional, and distributing literature.
He went home late that night very tired but he couldn’t sleep, too excited. Tomorrow was the day he had worked towards for months. He was confident about winning, he says. He put some classical music on and fell asleep.
Knox’s optimism exceeded most, including that of his boss. The next day he proved himself right. They won. Tom Butt was elected mayor of Richmond.
Knox said he slept nearly all day the day after the election. “I don’t think I even left my apartment for the whole day. I was so tired.”
That win, which put a national spotlight on Richmond voters for turning back big money in the election, could also shine on the young political campaign manager.
Richmond-born Knox has a strong political connection with his hometown. His family has been in the city for more than three generations, and his grandfather, John T. Knox is a former California Assembly member who served 10 terms, from 1960 to 1980, under Governors Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown.
Knox’s parents are Aracely Knox and John Knox, a lawyer.
Alex Knox’s most successful political adventure began on Aug.13th. Two days earlier he had arrived in the Bay area after spending 15 days sailing from Hawaii with 2 other crew members. Knox, an accomplished sailor, was delivering a competition boat.
When he landed, the first news he heard was of Mike Parker’s withdrawal from the election. The moment was “very exciting,” said Knox. “Before I left for Hawaii, I really didn’t feel like I would be engaged in Richmond’s politics this time.”
Tom Butt has known Knox as a friend and neighbor for many years and was impressed at his knowledge of local politics and ability to organize people. And Knox said Tom Butt’s political approach is in line with what he looks for in public service officials. For instance, he values historical preservation and environmental issues.
Andrew Butt, Tom Butt’s son called Knox “a very hard worker. He has a desire to be involved in this community, he seems to have a lot of potential, a lot of personal drive.”
Also, Knox said in an email to Richmond Confidential, “Because our goals for the campaign didn’t require any extraordinary tactics or methodology, my level of experience was appropriate.” Two days later he was hired as Tom Butt’s campaign coordinator, in charge of the day-to-day running of his campaign. This was the first campaign Knox had managed.
Knox was the only full-time staffer on the campaign. According to campaign statements, he earned a salary of $2,000 per month
Knox says there was no complicated master plan to achieve victory. “Our strategy was not much different from what you might expect, to represent Tom’s history as a leader.”
“We believed that people would vote for an experienced, reliable, and thoughtful candidate,” said Knox. “We ignored opportunities to focus on our opponents and rather than make loud statements through slogans, pictures of President Obama, or sensationalizing issues, we presented the voters with detailed and objective information that best represented Tom’s role as a member of the Council.”
Although the campaign was hugely outspent, Knox believes that people do care where money comes from, and how it is used. “You do need money to win campaigns, however there is a fundamental difference between small contributions from hundreds of individual residents, and contributions from one corporate resident,” Knox wrote.
“Dollars don’t equal votes, and I see the dynamic in Richmond as a clear indicator that the more money you have to spend to influence voters, the less likely you are to have true support and meaningful connections within the community.”
According to a campaign statement, Tom Butt’s campaign money largely came from individual supporters. Knox said they have supporters from 10 other states across the country, as far away as Rhode Island and New York.
“We spent some time reaching out to people and making it clear that we would need financial commitments in order to make it through to Election Day,” Knox wrote.
Knox is not even three years out of Guilford College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He chose the North Carolina college because he wanted a smaller school where he would have more opportunity to apply leadership on campus.
During his senior year there was an issue in the rules governing elections on campus. He and other students who wanted to run for president and vice president of the student government wouldn’t be on the ballot that year. He fought hard to rally student support, finally got on the ballot, and won the campaign.
“So student engagement was one of my first real looks into what it takes to get people inspired about getting involved in government, ”Knox said.
But not everyone in Knox’s family agrees with his politics. “My grandfather has been a friend and colleague of Nat Bates for a long time,” Knox said. “And I wouldn’t expect him to change his mind on that. ”
Since returning home from college, Knox has managed the demolition of a residential building in Point Richmond in an environmentally sustainable way. The demolition crew allowed him to deconstruct the house by hand. He took apart every wall, fixture and leftover element and wound up diverting about 22 tons of building materials from the landfill by sending the materials for recycling or reuse.
“I’ve run my construction site. I just see waste from construction material going into the dumps, ” Knox said with a furrowed brow. “It really kills me. I can’t bear it.”
Knox said his passion for sustainability goes back to his mother Aracely’s side of his family. For a time when he was a child the family lived in Mexico, and Knox remembered that people never threw away anything useful. “ Even with a bent nail, you fix it. You use it, ” Knox said.
While he’s happy for Tom and his team, Knox has mixed feelings about Richmond.
“Just look at the turnout from this year’s election in Richmond, they were really concerning,” Knox said of the low voter participation. “One thing that kind of brought me down a bit on election night was the turnout numbers. From a civic standpoint, it’s upsetting. It’s a national issue, but you can do a lot to fix it on a local level.”
One of the things Knox said he really cares deeply about is figuring out a way to unify and energize the Latino voting base in Richmond. He said Latinos are one of the most underrepresented communities in the city.
“I feel there is a lot of interesting initiatives to help me accomplish that. I would certainly find that as a huge goal,” he said. “We can’t continue to let it be. We need to start engaging new voters.”
As for the future, Knox hasn’t decided yet. But politics beckons.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated Alex sailed from Hawaii by himself. We wish to correct the record. Alex was the skipper of the boat and sailed it with 2 other crew members. Not by himself.
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