How Do I Get Started In Seeking Political Office?
October 5, 2008 9:29 PM   Subscribe

What Can I Expect If I Run For Public Office?

I am seriously considering taking my political activism to a more involved place and actually running for office. Nothing huge - I don't even know what to run for, yet.

But in our current political climate, I'm not sure if I can simply accept "showing up at the pollls" as fulfilling my need to be involved in what I believe in.

I would appreciate any help from Metafilterites who have felt the same way in the past, acted on it, and could guide me in thinking this through.
posted by Lipstick Thespian to Law & Government (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Take a class and learn! Univ of Virginia has a really good candidate training program. Camp Wellstone does one too. I bet lots of places do.
posted by meta_eli at 9:33 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dipping your toes in by getting involved in local committees is one way to at least meet the movers and shakers in your city. I served on a technology board of the city I used to live in, which ended up being much more meaningful than I thought it would be--it turned out to encompass issues that faced younger children, teens, senior citizens, immigrants and businesses in a way that I was surprised and gratified to be a part of. And I found myself on first name terms with the mayor and the whole city council, the school board and half of the district employees. By the time I moved I knew almost everyone who had a stake in the town's success and an amazing handle on what was really going on in our city.
posted by padraigin at 9:40 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you live in a smaller community, school boards or city councils are a great places to get started.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:04 PM on October 5, 2008

Last weekend I visited native New York City friends who moved upstate and got in touch with the local Dem outpost.

LT, I know that your forte is theater and my gut feeling is that it would be best to continue to express your being involved in this way.
posted by brujita at 10:25 PM on October 5, 2008

LT, I know that your forte is theater and my gut feeling is that it would be best to continue to express your being involved in this way.

and I would bet dollars to donuts there's some kind of arts committee in your town or county that would be exactly the right starting point for you to get involved in a way that has personal meaning to you.
posted by padraigin at 10:29 PM on October 5, 2008

2nd meta_eli's suggestion of Camp Wellstone. They're a progressive but non-partisan organization (although most of the Camp attendees will likely be left-leaning) who do training in Candidate, Campaign Manager, and Activist tracks. This is their upcoming schedule. I found it very useful and will jump at the chance to go back again, and then hopefully on to the advanced management course.

In any case, good luck!
posted by Picklegnome at 10:48 PM on October 5, 2008

Best answer: Have you worked on a campaign before? If not, that would provide a lot of insight.

Anyway, the position you intend to run for will determine what you should expect. The more local and obscure, the less work you'll usually need to do, and the less money you will need to raise. However, there are exceptions even to this; in some cities the city council is a huge deals, not so much in others. Sometimes someone will run a very gung-ho campaign for something most people don't care about, and if you end up running against one of those people you're going to have as hard a time of it as getting elected to more well-known positions. Also, depending on the area and the seat, you might have to sink a lot of money into a campaign that would not be as costly in other parts of the country.

The first and most important thing I would advise here is to get to know your community well politically. You should have a good grasp of who is who, and preferably talk to people who have held posts that you are interested in. Do as much as you can to get involved with your party in the area.

Once you have done that, you should get an idea of what you might be interested in running for. However, it's not that simple. A big determinant of what you want to run for first will simply be what's available. This is why being politically "hooked-in" to your area is very important, because you'll miss those opportunities otherwise. Let's say you decide to be a state representative. Well, there might not be a crappy state representative of your party that you could replace, and there might not be any of the other party whatsoever. It will depend on where you live. You could run to replace a good state rep from your own party, but good luck with that. Plus, it would not be doing a lot for your community to replace a guy that's essentially doing a good job, so it would be contrary to your goal. This is why particularly ambitious politicians will move to run for a particular office. Is that something you're willing to do? If not, it will limit your options.

Then you have to consider money. I was told by a politician whose campaign I worked on that calling and asking people for money was the most soul-sucking part of his job. Now, how much money you need will depend on what you're running for, where you live, whether the area tends toward your party or not (if applicable) and how hotly contested the position is. There are state representative races that get into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The state party may or may not be in a position to help you with this, and chances are you probably shouldn't count on them. Let's not even get into the figures for national races, but on the upside, you will get help from the national party if they think you have a shot of winning. (If they don't think you have a shot, hah, good luck.)

Do you have a lot of contacts that you can get money from? Furthermore, are you comfortable spending hours and hours a day calling people you know and asking them for money? Really stop and imagine that. For the most part, you're not going to get a lot of money from people in the area, even if you're likable and a great candidate. It sucks, but it's true; people tend not to give much money to local races, or even national congressional races.

Also, are you independently wealthy? Depending on the state you intend to run in, this might be a dealbreaker. Did you know that Texas state representatives only make $7,000 a year when they work a lot? Incredible, but true. One guy I worked for worked for typically did 12 - 16 hour days, every day. He could not have done it if he weren't independently wealthy. As horrible as it is, money keeps a lot of good people out of politics. The national level pays fine, but you'll need to research everything below that.

Speaking of which, are you willing to work those hours, day in, day out? Are you willing to completely devote your schedule, including weekends most hours, to whatever is necessary? Because if you run for your state legislature, or the national legislature, that's exactly what you're going to have to do. Do you have a family or loved one you care about spending time with? It will be very difficult.

Are you willing to spend a lot of those hours with people you don't like very much? Are you willing to eat lunch most days with people who just want something from you? Are you willing to try and make friends with every single person you meet? Are you willing to go to social functions all the time and talk to everyone you encounter? Are you basically cool with talking to people all day -- on the phone, in person, etc?

Are you willing to go up and talk to regular people you don't know? Are you willing to knock on their doors and tell them why they should vote for you, even when they're nasty to you? Do you know how to handle all different types of people?

Are you willing to watch every single word that comes out of your mouth? Are you willing to accept that sometimes you really do have to compromise on what you believe in just to inch in the right direction? Are you prepared to deal with people who don't understand what your job entails calling you a sell-out because you have done so?

Are you willing to have your entire life run through the wringer by the press? What about your family's? If there is anything you are hiding, or your family is hiding -- and you might not even know about those things! -- it will come out unless you have an honorable opponent who sticks to whatever is relevant. (Don't count on it.) Are you willing to defend yourself against made-up allegations too, which some people -- including acquaintances, friends, and some family -- may always believe about you anyway? Even in obscure local races this will happen. Some local races are downright nasty.

If you decide you can do all that, then you need to actually hire campaign staff. How are you going to pay for that? And the rent on the field office? Do you know who to hire? If you don't know specifically who to hire, do you at least know the positions you will need to fill? If not, this is why you should make sure you've worked on a few campaigns before you run for anything.

Finally, something you should keep in mind is that no matter what position you run for, your power is most likely going to be a lot more limited than you imagine. You have to know precisely what the position you run for actually does, or you're going to disappoint yourself if you make it into office. You'll spend a lot of time dealing with things like zoning laws and things that don't seem quite so grand if you run for city council, for example. If you're in the state legislature you'll get to vote on some important things, but you'll spend the vast majority of your time attending to things that seem tedious or relatively unimportant. Same for national-level politics. And if you're in the minority party, chances are you're not going to be able to do anything that you really want to do. You can work on some important bipartisan efforts, but most things you probably want to change aren't going to be within your grasp. You'll be hanging in there just because you know things would be even worse if you left.

For years I wanted to be a politician. I worked in politics for years first, and I'm glad I did -- it convinced me it was not the job for me. I have a shload of respect for the people that actually do it. I think they're a rare breed of people.
posted by Nattie at 10:57 PM on October 5, 2008 [75 favorites]

Rule #1: There's no such thing as "off the record".
Rule #2: Every microphone is always live.
Rule #3: Every camera is always running.
Rule #4: When in public, always act as if you're being followed by a camera, wielded by someone who hates you and knows how to upload to YouTube.
posted by Class Goat at 11:37 PM on October 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Depending on how big the political ecosphere is where you are running, I will second Nattie's suggestion you work on a campaign first. You will gain dozens of the necessary contacts needed to be success and you will find out first hand what campaigning is like.
posted by munchingzombie at 6:31 AM on October 6, 2008

Nattie is absolutely right. A few points bear repeating:
-If you're not independently wealthy, you WILL spend HOURS calling up every person you ever met and asking them for money. This includes friends and family. Many of them will give, many begrudgingly. You will hate this, and you will lose if you don't do it.

-Local elections get very nasty. I was part of that nastiness for a couple years. Once, I was instructed to link the opponent to North Korea. I spent half the day tracing his charitable donations finding some money that went to food relief, then I spent the other half of the day trying to convince the campaign manager and candidate that they shouldn't run with it. Assume that you'll be going up against people twice as able as me with only a fraction of my moral scruples.

If you're still into it, here's a good starter book by a couple of Judges.
posted by The White Hat at 11:15 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

My mother was on the County Board for a number of years and I did a lot of brochure design, campaign plank crafting, and plain old shoe-leather legwork for her.

What you need to do is match your ambitions with your abilities and interests. My mom was OK spending hours at committees dealing with minutiae of things like flood fringe maps or power line lease payments. She also got to chair the subcommittee that designed the new county jail, probably her proudest achievement. She had to retire to raise my brother's kids, but people said she could have/would have been the next county board chair.

If you're not already tuned into local issues, you'll have a hard time being enthused about putting together a local campaign. You won't be able to do anything about universal health care on city council. But if you already care about how your downtown is faring and what development of farmland does, for example, you will fit in quite well. At the state level you can affect health care policy, university system spending, the environment, and so on. If your passion is for national-level issues including especially foreign policy or "macro" domestic policy then you really have to start looking at Congress.

It's possible to get into the House or even the Senate as a political neophyte. But the independently wealthy have a real leg up there. We had three or four people running against a fairly popular Congressman who's from the party that you wouldn't expect to do well in this district. They were all capable of taking a lot of time off from their business or retired. They followed three or four consecutive runs by a moron who somehow had become a wealthy surgeon. I figure if he could do it, anybody could.

If I were doing it today, and had no real money, I would definitely start with an Obama-like p2p/web2.0 organization. I'd get statements onto the national political websites of my party affiliation (e.g. redstate, DKos) to build a reputation and possibly raise non-local money. I'd make sure I had contacts in every city in my district who could arrange constant event exposure -- from Labor Day parades to county fairs to church picnics. I'd set up tables in shopping malls (where permitted). I'd spend six months or a year, probably, working on campaign ideas before I got going. I'd practice my pitch on friends until they wanted to push me out the window.

Yes, it's grueling work, but when you can look back on a bill or especially a concrete thing, as with the jail and my mom, it's rewarding in a very substantial way.

What Nattie said, too, every word.
posted by dhartung at 3:40 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nattie said it all, but I will nth the Camp Wellstone rec - I've been through their training and it's phenomenal. Also, definitely get involved with another campaign. It's a really great way to get plugged into the local political scene and see what it's like to be a candidate.

BTW, going off your handle: there are a huge number of people with theater backgrounds in politics. I guess it's not surprising, given the similarities (the camaraderie, strange hours, strong personalities, proportion of extroverts and crazies), but still pretty striking.
posted by lunasol at 9:07 PM on October 6, 2008

Whoa. Lots of advice on the mechanics of running for office on this thread. Before you do though, you have to establish why, exactly, you want to put yourself through the stresses of a public election.

Winning an election should be the first part of the means to an end. This is not to say that your objectives will change after election victory but you're not going to convince anyone to vote for you if you don't display a passion for change.

Assuming you've done all the soul searching and made up your mind to run, I list a few things you should consider.

There are four elements to a successful campaign.

1. Issues/policy
2. Organisation
3. Finance
4. The candidate (you)

Here's some great insight from Tip O'Neil and others:

5. People like to be asked. Don't assume that the people close to you will just do it.
6. Never make an unnecessary enemy.
7. Know your audience.
8. A life in public service shouldn't make you rich.
9. Learn to count. You can't win without the votes.
10. Compromise is the art of politics.
11. Once you get power, don't be afraid to use it.
12. Your word is everything. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation but you can lose it in a day.
13. All politics is local.
14. All political careers end in failure. Start planning your exit strategy early.
posted by baggymp at 2:10 PM on October 18, 2008 [19 favorites]

Second everyone who's suggesting that you work on other people's campaigns--and explore opportunities for getting involved with issues you care about outside the electoral process--while you're thinking about this path. I also really recommend Catherine Shaw's The Campaign Manager for a clear and comprehensive introduction to local campaigns. (Camp Wellstone, already thoroughly promoted in this thread, also has a companion book you might want to look at.)
posted by backtotherain at 7:53 PM on October 31, 2008

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