What I Learned Running for Political Office

My Political Campaign VolunteersYep, you read that right.  I, the behind-the-scenes political consultant type, ran for a local political office this past year.  And I learned a TON.  I also RELEARNED a ton as well.  I almost don’t even know where to begin.

I know.  I’ll just begin at the beginning.

So, we’re new-ish in town.  We moved from New York City (where neighbors rarely ever even look at each other) to suburbia (where people mostly gossip about each other).  One of the first things I tend to do in a new place is reach out to the local GOP group.  They’re always my type of people, obviously.  So my husband and I attend a few events, meet some new people, the usual.  It’s a nice way to get involved in a new community.

One day a couple years down the road, I get an email that the local party is a little hard up for candidates in my district.  Even though I’ve sworn I’d never actually put my name on a ballot, I felt a pull to at least respond with something like, “if you can’t find anybody else…”  Well, they didn’t find anybody else.

Now before I go any further, you should know that I can check off at least half the items on this list of reasons NOT to run for office.  I am a homeschooling, work-at-home mom of five (yes FIVE) kids ages 1-8.  You might say I’m a little busy.  I don’t have a lot of time to put into a campaign.  Who am I kidding?  I don’t have any time to put into a campaign.  That was definitely mistake number one.

Don’t jump into an election without rationally weighing the pros and cons.

Seriously, it’s one of the first articles I ever wrote on this blog.  Think it through thoroughly!

But here’s the thing.  I wanted to meet other people in my neighborhood.  For the first time in our married life, we lived in a place where a family can put down real roots.  What better way to meet people than by knocking on their door and handing them a flyer with your bio on it?

And that leads me to the next lesson:

Winning the election is not the only reason to run for political office.

I was already aware of this, and guess what?  When your aim is something other than winning, it takes a lot of pressure off!

Believe it or not, there are plenty of positive outcomes from losing political campaigns, not the least of which is lots of knowledge and wisdom.  Networking.  Laying the foundation for a future campaign.  The possibilities really are endless.

Now, I’m not most people.  Most people run for elected office to, you know, be an elected official.  But not everyone thinks that far ahead when they jump into a campaign.  Which leads me to this-

Run for a job you actually want to do.

A lot of career-politicians-in-the-making want to eventually be a Congressman, so they plot a course from city council, to clerk-treasurer, to mayor, to state house, and finally to Congress.  If you don’t actually want to be those first four things, don’t run for them!  It’s entirely possible to run for Congress right out of the gate and win.  The exceptions would be governor, senate, and of course president – those require some name recognition in advance, either from public service or some other notoriety (like owning and going bankrupt on a bunch of real estate, or developing ground-breaking medical advances in pediatrics…).

Okay, back to my campaign.

For my campaign, I was running for Town Meeting Representative.  A Representative Town Meeting (RTM) is a traditional New England form of local government that is basically is a modern version of the original town meetings that date way back to colonial times.  It’s really cool, but really confusing.

Which leads me to lesson #2:

Know your district and your race well.

I had familiarized myself with the RTM style government, but there’s a lot more I still need to learn.  It’s not as important for the campaign itself – that part is simple – but it’s nice to have a good handle on what doing the job actually entails when you’re talking to voters.

It took a while for me to mentally get into the idea that I was actually running for office.  Honestly, summer brought swim lessons four days a week for 3 of the kids, and we homeschool year-round, so despite the longer daylight hours, I simply didn’t make the time for ground work.  Then when fall came, school got more serious and the extra-curricular activities kick in, and I’m driving kids to sports/music/scouts when I would otherwise be working on voter outreach.

I did sit down at Starbucks one Saturday afternoon and draft out a brilliant campaign plan using my very own Campaign Planbook.  And it was a great, winning campaign plan, too.  I totally should I have won with that campaign plan.  If I’d used it.  At all.

I had some creative, out-of-the-box ideas for reaching out to voters.  Ideas that would work better for me as a super-busy mom of lots of kids.  Unfortunately for my candidacy, I second-guessed every piece of my plan.  That was a big mistake.  What was I thinking?  I was afraid to take risks.  I opted to fall back on the tried-and-true tactics that I know by heart, but that don’t really work for me as a candidate right now.  Which is the next lesson I relearned:

Don’t be afraid to try unorthodox campaign methods.

So reality really sank in the first time I tried to go door-to-door with kids in tow.  This was a serious bubble burster.  I think we made it halfway down one side of the street, maybe, before turning back for home.

I haven’t been boots-on-the-ground campaigning since I was single and child-free.  After meeting several strained families of campaign professionals, I had decided before I ever had children that if I did, I wouldn’t put them through that crazy lifestyle.  You basically might as well be deployed overseas for the bulk of heavy campaigning season, because that’s how often you’ll see your family.  That’s why I write this here blog instead (for now).

My feelings haven’t changed.  I don’t want to spend my evenings and weekends knocking on doors and attending public events and community functions while my spouse is left single-parenting it and my kids have forgotten what I look like.  But since I’d abandoned my campaign plan I was left with traditional campaign tactics that don’t fit my current lifestyle.  Lesson learned:

Once the campaign plan is in writing, STICK TO IT!

Sure, there will be adjustments.  But by and large, the main content of the campaign plan should stay the same, and be followed!

Speaking of campaign plans…I used the Campaign Planbook to whip my plan together in about 2 hours.  Pick up yours here.

How to Run for City Council – Finding the Magic Number

Election Results determining campaign strategy

If you’re super lucky, you’re running for city council in a district that has embraced technology and has all the election data for the past several election cycles, broken down by precinct and in Excel format, available online, ready for easy download.  If you’re not lucky at all, you’ll have to make another trip to the voter registration/elections office, sift through paper records, and pay ten cents a page to copy the data you need, and then enter that data into a spreadsheet so you can sort and filter that information.  Most likely you’ll find some results online that you can start with, but you’ll need to run copies of the precinct by precinct results.

Believe it or not, I prefer the old fashioned method of putting together an election data base by hand–it forces you to get up close and personal with each and every number on the page.  By the end of the process, there should be no doubt in your mind how many votes you need to win and where those votes should come from.

Determining Your Win Number

“Win number” or “target number” are terms used to indicate the number of votes you’ll need to win the election.  The equation for this is the total number of expected votes (T) divided by 2, plus 1.  Sounds super simple, right?  And it is.  Sort of.  The hard part – and it really doesn’t have to be that hard – is guesstimating what T is.  Here are some rules for figuring it out.

First, ignore the total number of registered voters.  Many voters on the books are dead or have moved and simply haven’t been scrubbed off the list (these things take a while).  And only a fraction of the voters that are legitimate actually vote consistently.  To determine the total number of reliable voters for a given district, simply look at how many people have voted in the past in your district over the past 10 years or so.

You’ll likely notice a trend that in election years that include a presidential election, there is a significantly higher number of voters.  In years where perhaps municipal elected offices are the only races on the ballot, voter turn out will be at its lowest.  Where does it fall for your current election?  If it’s a presidential election year, you’ll have a lot more voters to get than if it’s not.

Let’s say that your city council seat is elected every 4 years in an off-election year–it’s an odd year (2015) in which there are no national elections at play–and so the number of voters are typically low.  In 2011, 1,032 people voted on your election.  In 2007, 1,115 people.  And in 2003, there were 997 voters.  That’s an average of 1,048 voters.  Since we want to pick a Target Number that’s conservatively on the safe side, and since there are no glaringly obviously outlying numbers here, I recommend using 2007’s 1,115 number as your “T” or Total Number of Voters for the purposes of determining your Win Number.  You may even want to round up to 1,200, so you don’t have to break out a calculator.  Half of 1,200 is 600, add 1 and your Win Number is 601.

BOOM!  It’s that easy.

How to Run for City Council – Where the Rubber Meets the Road

how to run for city council choosing your campaign team

Chandler for Borough President!

Now that you’ve gotten your paperwork in, you’re really running for city council!  Except not really, at all.  Anybody can slap their name on some forms and drop them off at the city building and get their name on a ballot as city council candidate.  Now you’ve got to prove to the voters–and yourself–that your heart is in it.  This is where the rubber really meets the road.

The Campaign Plan

I’m not going to cover the entire task of putting together a campaign plan in one post; that would be a disservice to you.  You can expect to see the various parts of the campaign plan systematically detailed in the coming posts, but if you’re really ready to hit the ground running, buy the Campaign Planbook, which will walk you step-by-step through the process of putting together a fully fleshed out, slam-bangin’ campaign plan in very little time.

The first step to writing a campaign plan actually has nothing to do with writing, yet.  You first need to gather together your gang/posse/crew – essentially, your ‘campaign team.’  There is a strict rubric you must follow when choosing people to be on this very short list.

  1. Do I really trust this person?  They will be keeping ALL your secrets.  You need to know they are telling no one.  Literally, no one.  You wouldn’t believe how much info I can milk out of your buddy’s 10 year old daughter’s classmate.
  2. Does this person have valuable input?  Just because Joe Shmoe is your best friend doesn’t mean he has anything meaningful to say about the city’s political affairs.  Additionally, just because some muckety-muck is the county representative to the state GOP doesn’t mean his opinion is worth two cents either.  You want to tap people who are close to you that are also actively engaged citizens.
  3. Does this person have the time to dedicate to this campaign?  Ideally, they should be able to put in as much time as you.
  4. Does this person have a talent or skill that is critical to campaign success?  If they are an accountant they’d make an excellent treasurer.  If they run a small business or manage a franchise (well, they’re probably too busy, but…) they’d likely make a good campaign manager.  Do not bother inviting people into the ‘club’ that don’t have anything to offer but moral support or a duplicate of someone else’s skill.  Pick the best man for the job and go with it.

Other things to consider: Will this person tell me to slow down when I’ve run myself ragged?  Will she pick up the slack if I need a break?  Will he tell me when I’m just plain wrong about something?  Will he put the well-being of my family/marriage ahead of the campaign?  In other words – is this person a true friend?

Because as a candidate you will likely give in to the temptation to believe that you are some sort of demi-god and the world revolves around you, or you will spend so much time going door-to-door that you miss every little league game of the season, or you will get so narrowly focused on what you think is important, you’ll forget to consider what the voters in your city think is important.  These people in your core campaign team are not ‘yes men.’  They need to be the ones that smack you in the face when you’re being dumb.

Once you’ve narrowed your group down to 3-5 individuals, then you’re ready to call a meeting and bust out the pens, the paper, and of course your brand new copy of the Campaign Planbook.

I should also mention here that spouses play a pivotal role in the development and implementation of the campaign plan.  I’ve been re-reading my favorite campaign planning book of all time (besides mine, of course) and it actually recommends keeping your spouse out of this group, citing that they’ll have the chance to help out by “putting up yard signs, answering phones, passing out literature, etc.”

“Um, excuse me?  So you’re basically saying my opinion means nothing to you but you still want me around for the grunt work, is that right?  Pfft!  Hope you like the couch, honey, because that’s what THAT conversation just won you,” is exactly what I would say to my husband if he relegated me to yard sign coordinator.

Chances are great that your wife couldn’t care less what’s in your campaign plan.  But you’re dragging her into this year of craziness right along with you.  It will affect her life tremendously.  And your actions as a public figure and political candidate will reflect on her public image, too.  That’s why I start every campaign plan with an agreement between candidate and spouse, so that all the cards are on the table, and both parties completely understand what’s expected of the other during this time.  Trust me, you need the support your spouse provides for you.  Additionally, you do not need the marital discord political campaigns can cause.

And if you need another reason: lack of communication can lead to major campaign faux pas in the future.  Let’s say, for example, you’ve decided you’re anti-spinach.  You’ve positioned yourself as the no-spinach candidate and the voters love you for it.  And then a reporter calls your wife and asks how she feels about spinach.  “Oh I love spinach, in fact I’m making creamed spinach for dinner tonight!”  Tomorrow’s headline: So-Called Anti-Spinach City Council Candidate John Smith Eats Spinach Twice a Week!”

Replace “spinach” with your town’s most recent fringe issue, and kiss your political aspirations good-bye.

Before you sit down with your team, you need to sit down with your spouse and determine how they would like to participate in the political process.  If she doesn’t want to be involved that much, that’s totally cool.  But if she wants a ‘seat at the table,’ I say give it to her, and take what she says seriously.

How to Run for City Council – Paperwork

Ah, the bane of my existence, paperwork.  I hate the seemingly endless stream of paperwork that accompanies running for office.  The good news, if you’re running for city council, is that the train-wreck of federal campaign finance laws don’t apply to you.  However, your city, county and state will likely have it’s own requirements.

The first and most important thing I must mention up front – there is no way I can write a post detailing every piece of paperwork you will be required to do because each town and state will have its own particular procedure.  Therefore it is imperative that you march yourself right down to your local city building and ask them to have mercy on your soul and help you out.

A few tips on interacting with the friendly folks in the clerk’s office:

  • Always kill them with kindness. Clerk is also an elected person, which means this is a partisan office, despite needing to serve candidates from both parties.  Generally they are open and helpful to everyone (it would be unlawful if they didn’t help you because you were from the opposing party), but sometimes you run into employees with a particular ax to grind.  Simply be sweet and persistent with these folks until you get what you need.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask ‘stupid’ questions.  Government forms are rarely easy to understand.  If you have any question at all about what’s required of you for a particular form, ask for clarity.  Make sure you are 100% sure of what’s required, because if you screw it up, it could be disastrous.
  • Always be very grateful for their help!  Friendships formed with the people in the Clerk’s office are priceless.  I am not above bringing them treats and sending thank you cards to these fine folks!

Unfortunately, the paperwork for running for local office is not universal – every municipality will have its own requirements, but luckily there is a basic framework that most towns and cities adhere to.  Here’s a list of the common forms and paperwork you’ll likely have to file:

  • Declaration of Candidacy or Nomination Papers – the first form you must fill out, your declaration that you intend to run for city council.  You may or may not be required to collect signatures in order to officially get your name on the ballot.
  • Bank Account – this isn’t one for the city clerk’s office, but you’ll need to open a separate bank account for campaign related fundraising and spending.  I put it here because you’ll want the ‘name’ of your campaign and the ‘name’ on the bank account to match, to avoid any confusion.  I recommend a simple “John Doe for City Council.”  Don’t try to get fancy, you don’t want to make writing a check out to you more difficult than necessary.
  • Campaign Finance Reports – these will likely need to be done before and after the primary election, and before and after the general.  It could also be on a quarterly basis.  Ideally some math whiz kid is tracking every dollar raised and spent in an Excel spreadsheet and can do the majority of the work on these forms for you, but you need to make sure you are aware and in agreement with the final numbers (because it’s your butt on the line, no one else’s).

All in all it’s pretty simple, and yet still so easy to screw up.  Don’t be afraid to ask the folks at the Clerk’s office to look over your paperwork before you officially turn in it to verify you checked all the right boxes, signed in all the right places, etc.  Make extra certain everything on the form is 100% accurate.  You want to catch any errors before your opponent or the media does.

The first step (after reading this article) is to do an internet search for “file to run” or “candidacy” or some similar key words with the name of your town.  Chances are the information you need, and maybe even the forms, are available online.  You’ll find out exactly where you need to go and who you need to shmooze to get your paperwork through without hassles.  If you can’t find info online, it’s time to pound the pavement.  Start at your town’s Clerk’s office, as that’s very likely where you need to file, and if it’s not, they can tell you where.  Sometimes filing to run for city council requires a trip to the county voter registration office, but not in most cases.

What are you waiting for?  Get going!

How to Run for City Council – Get A Grip

How to run for city council

NYC City Councilman Christine Quinn – I just like this pic of her. She doesn’t actually look much like this in real life.

Running for city council is a lot like running for any other office…and yet different.  If you know nothing about political campaigning and this city council run is your first foray into the election process, keep on reading – I’ll walk you through the steps of designing a successful campaign over the course of the next few days/weeks.

Get A Grip On Your Mindset

There are a few different approaches to framing a political campaign and it’s very important that you choose the right one in order to create a winning ‘tone’ for your campaign communications.  Keep in mind, this isn’t about why or how you’re trying running.  You may seriously hate the guy currently representing your city council district, and want nothing more than to beat the pants off him in an election, but you can’t write a great, winning campaign plan with in that state of mind.

You need to approach this city council race in a way the voters can relate to it.  Every elected office has its own flavor.  You have to identify the flavor of yours, and go with it, at least on the surface.  This will be a key piece of putting together your campaign message. Think about it this way:  If you were running for mayor or governor or some other executive branch office, you would basically be auditioning to be the star in a one-man show.  Think about the presidential nomination process.  On both sides, candidates are selling their own life/personality/résumé, and making campaign promises like they can just wave their hand and make all your dreams come true (some of them really believe it, too).

Running for a state or congressional representative seat is a different story.  In these campaigns we see more of an “us” verses “them” mentality, and candidates running at this level tend to plan their campaigns like they’re running to be Team Captain for “Our Team.”  Imagine campaign slogans like “Joe Smith Will Fight for You” and “Jane Johnson Leads Us to Prosperity.”  These are the types of campaign messages that play well for representative elections.

Running for city council is a different animal all together.  In this scenario, you’re simply a freshman at tryouts, hoping you make JV and not even dreaming about varsity.  You just want to play the game.  No one expects their city councilperson to be argumentative, pushy or divisive.  They envision a city council full of ‘team players’ working together in very droll, drawn-out meetings to determine if this building or that one should be re-zoned.  Using a campaign message that suggests you’re a ‘fighter’ or ‘the leader’ is not going to fit with that picture in the voters’ heads (whether the picture is accurate or not is irrelevant).

Does that mean you have to run your campaign like you’re simply a follower?  No!  Pick some important city issues and promise to give them a voice (and keep that promise) – but do it in a manner that tells the voter you’re running to do your part so the whole team to win, not just you. Now go brainstorm some campaign slogans for your city council race!