Paying to work on a political campaign? Sort of.

The Obama campaign veterans now consulting with Democratic House candidate Ro Khanna have created a stir by charging young campaign newbies $5,000 each for a chance to learn at their knee and then get a five-week, unpaid campaign job somewhere, Buzzfeed reports.

Run by (Jeremy) Bird and (Mitch) Stewart’s consulting company, 270 Strategies, the new program’s emphasis on placing paying customers in essentially volunteer roles on Democratic campaigns is atypical in the campaign training industry, and some Democrats say it sets a dangerous precedent. The firm’s first-ever “270/360 Training Intensive” program is scheduled to begin in September.

The program’s website describes a six-week program, consisting of five days of “intensive” campaign training at 270’s Chicago HQ featuring Stewart and Bird and other “architects of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns,” followed by five weeks of volunteer work on an “an important Democratic campaign in the United States.”

Participants must pay $3,500 for the five days of training, and another $1,500 to be placed in the volunteer campaign job, though 270 Strategies said it will offer scholarships and discounts on a case-by-case basis. Applications are due next Thursday, July 31.

Asked Friday whether any of these trainees might wind up working for Khanna’s campaign to unseat Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, 270 Strategies replied it has “not yet made decisions about campaign assignments.”

Khanna campaign spokesman Tyler Law said “I don’t know what their plans are, but we’re definitely excited about having 170 active fellows” working unpaid campaign jobs, drawn mostly from local high schools and colleges. “Every fellow that we have has been recruited by our campaign, or has shown up at one of our campaign offices because they are ready to work for someone who will provide forward-looking leadership for the 17th District.”

Honda campaign spokesman Vivek Kembaiyan declined to comment Friday.

Lots more on this, after the jump…

Buzzfeed quoted a few sources concerned about creating a “pay to play” system for would be campaign staffers, and about whether charging people for the opportunity to work is in keeping with the firm’s progressive values.

But in a blog item posted Friday, Bird and Stewart insisted this isn’t just an organizing training but rather “a comprehensive multi-disciplinary approach that we apply to helping campaigns reach their goals” unlike trainings offered by other organizations. “The immersion and real-world application of this intensive training makes the lessons real – and address a need that organizations around the world have identified.”

This isn’t a campaign volunteer opportunity, they said, but a hands-on “training on organizing, data analytics, digital and communications strategy and tactics coupled with immersion on a campaign.” Such training costs money “and we expect to cover our costs but we are not expecting or planning to profit,” they wrote.

The Connecticut-based Students for a New American Politics (SNAP) PAC has placed two student fellows with Honda’s campaign, providing them with training and a stipend. SNAP PAC executive director Zachary Krislov said Friday he’s “skeptical” of 270 Strategies’ approach.

“You do need to look at who it’s catering to, who will be able to do it,” he said, adding the money is flowing in the wrong direction. “We feel very strongly that if we want a progressive movement that reflects the diversity of our country… we need to provide opportunities to people throughout the socio-economic spectrum, and paying people for their work is part of that.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.