Two UT students were the digital masterminds behind Democrat Mike Collier’s 2018 campaign for Lt Gov

Raga Justin

In the wake of the midterms, UT-Austin students Jared Hrebenar and Ali Zaidi have turned their attention back to the regular rhythm of classes and extracurriculars. 

But just last month, they were working around the clock on Mike Collier’s campaign for lieutenant governor, which ultimately came within 5 points of winning against incumbent Republican Dan Patrick. 

“We hear about these things going on, and it’s surreal to be on the other side of it,” Zaidi said. “The things you decide at 8 a.m. in a conference call are the things that then decide the news headlines. Folks that we read about, those were the folks we were working with. I can’t even put into words how incredible that is.”

Hrebenar and Zaidi, international relations and global studies sophomores, started working on Collier’s campaign as interns while in high school.

They did not remain interns long. Collier said after hearing their frequent contributions early in the race, he decided to bring Hrebenar and Zaidi in on his campaign’s daily conference calls.

“I think they knew all along what the old man needed to do to win but they were waiting for me to see that they got it,” Collier said. “It didn’t take them more than six weeks before they were running those calls and really driving all of the key decisions. They understood the digital arena just brilliantly.”

Collier said he soon phased out his “old-fashioned” advisers and Hrebenar and Zaidi became Collier’s digital directors over the summer. Hrebenar said they immediately started by redoubling efforts on Collier’s Facebook page. Within a month it gained thousands of page views.

By September, Hrebenar said they functioned as Collier’s actual campaign managers, overseeing “anything involving a computer” and mapping out Collier’s political and social media strategy.

“We called the shots there for the last months,” Hrebenar said.

Both Hrebenar and Zaidi are full-time students but planned their schedules so one of them was always free and briefed their professors on the situation. Zaidi said he only took classes that allowed electronics so he could take notes and text politicians simultaneously. 

“Both of our phones were buzzing literally all the time,” Zaidi said. “The moment we got out of class we’d be answering call after call. In the middle of everything, what always passed your mind was that you had an essay due that night.”

Although they had previously worked on a city council race, this was a larger operation and they were relatively inexperienced, Zaidi said. 

At night after their classes, they would sit in an empty room in Patton Hall and brainstorm on a blackboard, often studying other campaigns.

“There is no handbook to politics,” Zaidi said. “There is no politics for dummies. It’s all about your intuition and your gut, feeling it out and learning from new experiences. A lot of the credit goes to Mike for trusting two 19-year-olds.”

Last summer, Collier, Hrebenar and Zaidi jumped in Hrebenar’s Jeep and campaigned around Texas. Collier then started calling the pair “gremlins,” a nickname he said the “whole state” knows about now. 

“We were up against Goliath,” Collier said. “(Hrebenar and Zaidi) prevented Goliath from overwhelming me, and I attribute it to their skill. What the gremlins showed us was it’s not about money — it’s about message and messenger.”