The political guru wore tennis shoes
A recently graduated college student who made
YouTube videos in his dorm room has captured the
attention of some presidential hopefuls.
By Jim Puzzanghera, Times Staff Writer
June 16, 2007
WASHINGTON — During the 2004 presidential campaign,
the radical way for candidates to reach young voters
in college dormitories was to appear on "The Daily
Show With Jon Stewart." This time around, some
candidates have gone straight to the dorm rooms.
Not just any room, but Room 325, a single on the
third floor of a red-brick residence hall at
Georgetown University here. Two long-shot
presidential hopefuls have trekked there to meet
James Kotecki, a 21-year-old international politics
major who has become the candidates' unlikely guide
to the YouTube demographic.
In January, right about the time that presidential
hopefuls began experimenting with posting campaign
videos on the Internet, Kotecki started critiquing
their efforts through YouTube videos of his own.
Talking to pencil-puppet versions of the candidates,
the self-described "huge political geek" dispensed
campaign advice from his dimly lighted room, where
shelves stocked with Pringles and Special K served
as the backdrop.
The campaigns paid attention. Kotecki became a kind
of unpaid online video consultant, with candidates
taking his tips and sending back video responses.
Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, and former Alaska
Sen. Mike Gravel, a Democrat, even visited Kotecki's
dorm room for serious, sit-down interviews that he
posted on YouTube.
Kotecki's graduation last month meant that he left
the dorm room behind, but not his influence. On
Thursday Democratic candidate Rep. Dennis J.
Kucinich of Ohio joined Kotecki for a YouTube video
they shot in a Capitol Hill park. A Republican
hopeful, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee,
recently did the same at a Washington fundraiser.
"I'm not going to say never in my wildest dreams
would I have ever expected this, because I have a
tendency to dream pretty big, but it's not really
something I could have predicted," Kotecki said of
his newfound notoriety. "YouTube is a total
And Kotecki got lucky.
Before he became the unofficial VJ for the 2008
presidential campaign, Kotecki was just another kid
with a video camera.
He often broke up his studies at Georgetown by
surfing the offerings on YouTube, the video-sharing
site. When he bought a Web camera in January, he
decided to join the craze.
"Everyone else is doing it," he thought. "It seems
like they're having a good time."
Kotecki started recording his opinions, two or three
minutes at a time, about how each presidential
candidate was using the video site. He posts them on
his blog, jameskotecki.com, and on YouTube.
Occasionally wearing a blazer and sometimes even a
tie, the clean-cut Kotecki delivered his opinions
rapid-fire to squeeze as much content as possible
into each short video.
They were no-frills productions, spiced with the
standard YouTube accouterments: cheap props (pencil
puppets made with black-and-white head shots of
candidates and handwritten signs), improvised sound
effects, pop culture references ("Star Wars" and
"Fat Albert") and a peculiar screen name (EmergencyCheese
— after a goofy business idea he had in the 11th
grade to produce special containers of cheese to be
used in an emergency).
"Your YouTube presence is weak," he told Sen. Joseph
R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). He praised former North
Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, for focusing
on specific issues and keeping his videos short,
while encouraging Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to show
more of his sense of humor.
For Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Kotecki had
some practical suggestions — talk directly to the
camera, use different backgrounds. "I'd also
recommend sitting up straight," he said.
These were not earth-shattering insights, but
Kotecki was one of the only people making them. His
critiques were focused, well-researched and
Steve Grove, head of news and politics at YouTube,
discovered Kotecki's videos and decided to feature
them on the site's home page, providing major
"It was this really earnest, intelligent, smart,
young kid saying, 'Hey I want to talk with the
candidates. Let's have a two-way conversation,' "
Grove said. "It seemed genuine."
Kotecki's attention turned to politics in high
school. He spent part of his junior year as a
congressional page and fell in love with Washington.
Georgetown was a natural college choice, and living
in the nation's capital only further fueled his
interest in politics.
When he started making YouTube videos, Kotecki
researched and recorded them between classes or at
night, cobbling them together with the software that
came on his laptop computer. His girlfriend, Emily
Freifeld, lent expertise from her broadcast
journalism studies. He posted them on YouTube and
sent them to the presidential campaigns.
The campaigns didn't ignore them.
Edwards posted a written "Thanks" to Kotecki's
YouTube page in February. About a month later,
Kucinich went one better, addressing Kotecki
directly in a 50-second video response, taking his
advice for tighter close-ups.
"My advisor," Kucinich said, holding up his own
pencil puppet of Kotecki.
Kucinich said later that his staff directed him to
Kotecki's critiques. The close-ups are more
effective, Kucinich agreed, so he has continued to
use them, although the pencil puppet was a one-time
"James Kotecki should be given a lot of credit for
opening a new pathway to discussion," Kucinich said.
GOP candidates were also paying attention. Former
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney provided a video
response to one of Kotecki's policy questions, as
did Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).
Then in April, Paul, the Texas congressman, helped
Kotecki become a legend among YouTube's amateur
When Kotecki invited Paul to his dorm for an
interview, Jesse Benton, the Paul campaign's
communication director, thought it would be a good
platform for the 71-year-old candidate to reach
He was nervous, however, about what his boss would
think of an idea that may have seemed more like
"Animal House" than "Meet the Press."
But Paul went for it. On April 26, Benton drove him
to Georgetown's LXR Hall, a short trip from Capitol
"It was exactly what you would have expected: a
little desk and two chairs, a bunk," Paul said
later. "It wasn't quite the production as when I
went on the Bill Maher show."
Kotecki was serious and respectful. They talked on
camera about Paul's background, his foreign policy
positions, the Constitution and the role of the
Internet in politics. Paul plugged his website, and
Kotecki gave him the Ron Paul pencil puppet he had
used in earlier videos.
"I asked him if he was looking for work," Paul said.
"But he said he was busy and had plans."
By most accounts, it was the first presidential
campaign sit-down ever conducted in a college dorm
room. The edited version has been watched more than
Shortly afterward, Gravel also made the trek to
Kotecki's dormitory for a similarly serious sit-down
— and to collect his complimentary pencil puppet.
In only a few months, Kotecki has managed to
transform himself into a respected campaign
commentator using only a 3-year-old Dell laptop and
$60 Logitech Web camera. CNN, National Public Radio
and the Washington Post, among others, have sought
his views on presidential campaign videos.
"He's not only using the medium effectively, he's
showing the political establishment how to be better
at understanding the dynamics of online
communications," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of
TechPresident.com, a site that tracks how candidates
are using the Web. "They are responding to him
because they feel like if they don't, they'll be
viewed as having missed the boat."
The real world intruded on Kotecki's YouTube
ambitions when he graduated from Georgetown. His
videos were taking off, with nearly 1,000
subscribers to the channel he set up on YouTube, and
he didn't want to quit.
So Kotecki changed his mind about a job at a New
York financial services consulting firm, figuring
that the anticipated 80-hour workweeks would leave
him little time for YouTube.
He decided to stay in Washington and do research and
analysis about how political risks affect hedge
funds for consulting firm Cypress Group, where he
had interned. The main selling points: a more
manageable workweek and a promise by his boss to be
YouTube-friendly. The firm allows Kotecki to make
videos from the office and work part-time as he
tries to launch his own consulting practice to show
corporations and organizations how to communicate
effectively through online video.
YouTube has gone from an unofficial college minor to
a potential career.
"I found out as I kept doing it and people gave me a
good response, this is what I loved to do," Kotecki
But he had another concern that wasn't so easily
resolved. Was being a college kid the key to his
"The first thing I thought was, 'When I leave my
dorm room, is that it?' " Kotecki said.
He prepared his audience for his graduation. And to
show that his new set wouldn't constrain him, one of
his first videos ended with Kotecki spinning around
in his chair to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This." He
recently celebrated cracking the 1,000-subscriber
barrier by doing a video entirely in rap, grooving
with his pencil puppets in the empty office late one
With the candidates still experimenting with online
video, Kotecki figures his advice will continue to
be valuable in the first presidential election of
the YouTube era.
"Everyone's still trying to figure it out," he said,
"and there's no one that can say they know more
about it than me."