John Baer: Kahlil Byrd wants to disrupt America's political gridlock

Khalil Byrd
Khalil Byrd
Posted: February 21, 2013

KAHLIL BYRD is all about change, and I don't mean for a dollar or a fiver.

No, sir. The change he wants is "disruptive politics" as a path to a better democracy.

Byrd is former chief executive of Americans Elect, a 2012 effort that sought an alternative to the two-party presidential nominating process; he's current president of Students First, an education-reform group founded and headed by onetime Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Byrd's keynoting an education conference at Penn on Saturday, "The Debate for America's Future: Assessing the Viability of Public Education Solutions."

But his pitch is broader than public schools. His pitch is "disruptive politics."

When I ask for a definition, he says, "A group of people around the country kicking ass in politics."

The 45-year-old is a Boston native with degrees from Morehouse and Harvard, a Republican who formerly worked as a producer for NPR's "Morning Edition" and the BBC, and, more recently, for Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Byrd's father was a Presbyterian minister. His mother, a Harvard Ph.D., worked in education. Both worked in the thick of the 1970s Boston school-busing crisis.

The crisis Byrd works on these days is the stagnation that is American politics, and his message focuses on opportunity for public involvement, using technology to organize, to change that.

"We are at a moment where people are unsatisfied," he says, noting the political system is choked by gridlock and risk-aversion while all other areas of American life has innovators pushing "the boundaries of what's possible."

He says Americans Elect and Students First are the kinds of movements that get better ideas to the forefront.

"The past and the status quo are not going to dominate the debate" in the future, Byrd says.

And although the nonpartisan, nonprofit Americans Elect failed to pull off a national online nominating convention to pick an independent presidential candidate last year, Byrd said it still had impact.

It had 8,000 workers, spent $40 million creating a grass-roots network and getting on state ballots, and it helped elect Maine independent Angus King to the U.S. Senate.

It also hammered on the message that a candidate free from having to pander to the right or left during party primaries would be freer to govern creatively.

They may not have succeeded, but broad change in politics doesn't come quickly.

Meanwhile, Students First last year helped local candidates win 84 of 100 legislative races in 10 states, including Pennsylvania. It supported candidates in 10 Pennsylvania races (nine wins), mostly Republicans, but including Philly Democrat Rep. Kevin Boyle.

Despite Students First's association with school vouchers and charter schools - generally GOP-backed initiatives - Byrd calls the group "firmly bipartisan." But he also contends that "Republican-dominated states have a higher probability of making change."

In his Penn speech Saturday he plans to explain "disruptive politics" as a new model driven by consumer choice, technology and increased access by more and more people to information and organization to create a system in which "the best idea wins."

As a cynic who thinks we've become an ungovernable nation requiring radical change in campaign-finance law, an end to gerrymandering and a fire-hosing of the political process, I'm always suspect of change agents, be they groups or individuals.

However, Byrd's voice is one that should be heard.

And I wonder if it's mere coincidence that his name, Kahlil (he's named for the poet/essayist Kahlil Gibran), is so close to the given name of Superman, Kal-El, in the 1978 film "Superman."

I mention this because the controversial 2010 documentary on public education, "Waiting for 'Superman,' " prominently features Byrd's boss, Michelle Rhee.

Draw your own conclusions. And I'll draw attention to efforts at change.




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