How do I get elected?
October 17, 2005 9:29 AM   Subscribe

I plan on running for a city council seat in a college town of 81,000 people. The election isn't until Spring, 2007. What can I do now to increase my chances of getting elected?

I'm looking for innovative and creative methods of increasing my profile while helping the city.

A little background: I am a 27 year-old college graduate with four years of active duty military service, one year of combat experience in Iraq, and a Bronze Star. My politics are progressive and I tend to vote Democrat.

After the military, I moved here to study for a Masters in City Management but I think I might benefit more from the practical experience of actually helping to manage a real city.

The city, by the way, is Lawrence, Kansas (home of the University of Kansas Jayhawks).
posted by viewofdelft to Law & Government (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would advise you do two things.

Firstly, register current freshman and sophmores to vote. Do it now when nobody else is talking about the election. It doesn't mean they'll vote, but it does mean that people will begin to know who you are. If you get press about this, you've got first-mover advantage. Start creating connections with influential faculty, staff, and administrators at KU and use them as your organizing base.

Secondly, get yourself a campaign manager who has close ties to the school of law. It will help you organize down the road, meet people you need to meet, give you an air of credibility, so on.

Good luck and keep us updated.
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:36 AM on October 17, 2005

Might growing a moustache help? Depends on the demographic you want to appeal to really, but it can make you look older if youth might lose you votes. (Though in the UK I wouldn't even think about it.)
posted by biffa at 9:37 AM on October 17, 2005

Hmmm, not sure how much "innovative and creative" will help you in getting elected.
Where I live (Bremerton, WA - pop. 60,000), there's a party 'establishment' that generally helps get folks elected. What does the trick in the end is getting endorsements from influential people in the community, people like leading party members, newspaper editors, leading business/chamber folks, etc.
Do you currently attend City Council meetings? Do you know the Councilperson you want to run against? Is there someone vacating a position? Is the Council elected by district, at-large, or a blend? If it's by district, you'll need to know who currently represents the district, and figure out a few things - who voted for this person and why, what has this person done/not done for the district, how could you do a better job? If the person is vacating the district seat, it could help to get their endorsement (especially if this person is good).
Anyway, you should become familiar with issues the City Council has to deal with (hence, attend the meetings), understand the budgeting process, and try to understand the general process for how things get done in City Government in Lawrence.
Is there a Planning Commission in Lawrence? Is it possible to get on it? This is a time-honored way of working your way into elected office. Likewise, if there are any citizen's committees (as for a Comprehensive Plan update, Critical Areas Ordinance, or Transportation Planning group) - being involved in any/all of these are good ways of getting to know some of the other movers/shakers in City government. People like Planners, City Attorney, Economic development Head, etc. are all generally involved in the day-to-day running of the city, and if you can show them that you are thoughtful, responsible, and have good ideas, that can go a long ways toward a respectable showing when you run for office.
posted by dbmcd at 9:43 AM on October 17, 2005

I grew up in another Big XII conference college town not terribly far from Lawrence (one state to the south), and I can tell you that the winners of local elections were always people that played to the local populace, not the university. University students might vote in state and national elections, but don't often care who the town mayor is. The local population, however, has a huge stake in who the council members are. So my advice is to get off campus and start cultivating connections with local business people and doctors and public school teachers. Those are the folks that will vote you into a council seat.
posted by u2604ab at 9:44 AM on October 17, 2005

Join local clubs that interest you. An easy way to make contacts with lots of local people and volunteering yourself for positions inside the club and then doing your job well shows the people that they can trust you.
posted by lazy-ville at 9:56 AM on October 17, 2005

Ditto u2604ab. (And I'm a university student here in Lawrence.) Students don't vote for city council. I'm the only one I know who voted in the last city election.

Some concerns specific to Lawrence: Right now, everyone on the city council except Sue Hack is part of the very popular "progressive" coalition. I forget what their official coalition name is. Hack gets elected as the token "less liberal" figure, and she's in until 2009.

You'll have to see who's running for reelection in 2007. Highberger, Rundle and Schauner all seemed to be well-liked, and I don't know if any/all of them will be interested in another term.

Look back at the Journal-World's stories from the last election. Any editorials or comments on the news stories would give you some hints at what Lawrence residents liked/disliked about that set of candidates.
posted by katieinshoes at 10:04 AM on October 17, 2005

Raise money.
posted by By The Grace of God at 10:08 AM on October 17, 2005

After the military, I moved here to study for a Masters in City Management but I think I might benefit more from the practical experience of actually helping to manage a real city.

I think you'd have better luck getting a part-time job or internship with the city.

If you want to get elected, what to do to increase your chances from zero to small isn't hard.

Go to lots of civic events. Meet people, and start networking hard. Turn a meeting one week into an invitation the next where you meet someone new and get invited to their shindig, etc. Convince people that you're going to live in Lawrence for the rest of your life. Keep doing and doing and doing this 15--50 hours/week until the 07 election season starts. Even then, your odds will probably be very low, because why should a longtime city resident vote for you when you're transparently just filling a line on your resume, when they could vote for someone they've known and semi-trusted for 25 years?

Ignore the students. It's likely that few will be even legally able to vote for you, and those few are not at all likely to turn up at the polls, especially for an odd-year race.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:15 AM on October 17, 2005

I think it will be difficult for someone as young as you to get elected; nevertheless, the media loves highly motivated young people trying to serve in local government. It's an angle into what would otherwise be a mundane story.

Pick an issue that you feel needs more attention from local goernment, and start acting on it. Become the guy who shows up at every council meeting asking about road repairs or how Homeland Security funds are beign spent by the local police department. Then in 2007, that gives you something to run on. "I felt I had to get involved because issues like parking meter maintenance, which affects every Lawrence resident, aren't being adequately addressed by current council members," said Candidate Viewofdelft. "I've been petitioning for more action since 2005, and this seemed the best way to get progress moving."
posted by junkbox at 10:17 AM on October 17, 2005

Take lots of money from developers to finance your campaign. That seems to be the ticket in small-town Utah, anyway.
posted by craniac at 10:19 AM on October 17, 2005

Read George Lakoff, Robert Cialdini, and other linguists and psychologists on the principles of influence. Remember that how issues get framed is more important in how they're perceived than any amount of facts and figures. Look at what's been important in the rhetoric of recent elections. Make sure you know constituents, and how they're talking and thinking about issues, so you can make appropriate choices in how you communicate.

These are going to be less important in a local campaign than a larger one, but if you can get a leg up on the competition here, it could be a big advantage.

Look good and speak well (by community standards.) To the extent possible, always be communicating that you're one of them -- their values are your values, not on the details maybe, but in all the important ways. And you care, and you value your thoughts, and you're listening. You feel their pain. (Yeah, it's become a punchline, but look at all the first-person accounts of how even people who didn't much care for Clinton responded to his charisma.)

This is going to be especially important since you arrived as a student, and college towns tend to have town-folk college-folk tension. Do what you can to lay claim to commitment to the city, since you've got no claim to roots. Volunteering to help with civic projects might be your best bet here. Habitat for Humanity, maybe? It needs to be something (nearly) everyone can admire, at least in principle.

If who's religious or not or in the wrong ways plays a role in local politics, and you really cynically want to go whole hog, start attending the appropriate local mainstream church.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:05 AM on October 17, 2005

So, you've been in town how long, again? And want to run for office why, again?

As a newbie student, you might want to come up with a more compelling reason for running than "I might benefit." If you're progressive, and most of Lawrence's council is part of a popular progressive coalition, what makes you think you need to change that? Are there any important local issues on which you honestly believe the progressive majority is doing the wrong thing? If so, spend time researching and articulating those in an intelligent way. If not, then aren't you treating local politics a bit lightly? It's difficult to imagine local voters taking you seriously if you don't have any compelling positions, Bronze Star or not.

Elections aside, there are plenty of ways to get "the practical experience of actually helping to manage a real city" without running for office, like joining neighborhood councils, working on city committees, and seeing if your department has an internship arrangement with the locals. That's where you'll learn the ins and outs.
posted by mediareport at 12:17 PM on October 17, 2005

The secret to breaking into municipal politics without paying your dues for twenty years is to find an under-represented, but not under-resourced, interest group and become their champion.

With your military background, you might have a natural appeal to a more conservative / pro-business segment in town. The college town business community is often willing to back up to the hilt someone only slightly more moderate than the rest of the establishment -- if only to have someone in office who'll take their calls and come to the Rotary every few months.

While most students won't vote, they can still be an important variable -- it doesn't take a lot to get the politically-active college kids behind a candidate. Running right can be helpful there -- the mainstream of undergrads is usually far to the right of the mainstream of older voters in southern and midwest college towns.
posted by MattD at 12:45 PM on October 17, 2005

Oh, and you have to assume that you'll need to raise and spend at least three times what the winners in the last election raised and spent

Not only do you need to get your message out without recourse to the community institutions which the local establishment dominates, but there's a really interesting way that big money coming against them out of nowhere tends to make the local establishment start to act desperate and stupid. You'll know you've won when the frizzie-gray-haired ex-hippie whose seat you're after starts giving sputtering quotes to the newspaper about how you need to respect your elders...
posted by MattD at 12:49 PM on October 17, 2005

Don't be completely discouraged by the anti-student trend. They don't tend to vote in local elections because it doesn't usually make a whit of difference to them. You can get them interested if part of your platform is to do things students would care about. Obviously it's important to not ostracize yourself from other demographics, but students can be influential. Cambridge (MA) residents took notice of this when one of the local alumni ran for city council and came within a few (less than 100, if I recall?) votes of being elected to the 9-seat council. How did he do this?? He had a platform that appealed both to the large student population as well as some other groups in the city; he had volunteers from those schools and other groups that helped with the voting drive both during the election and long before; and he was really out there - like mediareport and other said - at council meetings, working with established political influences, etc. (You can still follow the pre-election stuff and the close results at the LJ community that kept the news going out to local and far-away supporters).

As far as students and registering to vote, two things to consider. One, here, at least, you can register for city voting without being a state resident, or have it revert back to your residency after the election, or something like that, I'm not sure of the details or its uniqueness. Two, many students aren't registered at home either. There's at least one person here who does know those details who might turn up yet?

But, unless you have your heart set on running this time, there is also wisdom in waiting for the next time around. You sound very experienced but are likely to find resistance in "older" circles. Participating at lower levels or as an intern will also lend weight to your credibility and increase your effectiveness in office due to a larger network and more first-hand experience.

YMMV, this is not Kansas, I've never even set foot in Kansas, but good luck in any path you choose.
posted by whatzit at 4:34 PM on October 17, 2005

the mainstream of undergrads is usually far to the right of the mainstream of older voters in southern and midwest college towns.

That's highly debatable, and depends for its certainty on some pretty vague use of the term "mainstream." In the college town I live in, there are at least three active "mainstreams of older voters" I can think of off the top of my head, along with a varied (and relatively small) group of students who bother to vote in municipal elections. That's been the case in each of the three Southern college towns I've lived in over the last 18 years. Generalizing about the political leanings of the students in those towns compared to "mainstream older voters" is a pretty big oversimplification. Calling those students "usually far to the right" of the town voters is just plain wrong.

In my experience, anyway.
posted by mediareport at 10:28 PM on October 18, 2005

here is one idea:

I say this as an advertising creative: write a blog.
it works. think about it - what isn't your opponent doing?
is your core audience online? bingo.

write a list of the three items you want people to know about you. make this really precise and brief. an example:

1. I am a nice guy.
2. I am passionate about things.
3. I am an honest and hard worker.

hang it above your wall. carry a crappy little digital camera with you wherever you go. write daily. let people see what gets you going, what you do, who you meet. write about them. and make sure every post you write says at least one of the statements outlined on your wall without *actually spelling it out*. do not lecture.

if you do your job well, you will dominate googles' searches for your name in no time. people will notice.

oh yeah, try to avoid getting filmed paying for a prostitute with a city check unless you want an afternoon tv talk-show, of course.
posted by krautland at 4:03 PM on August 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

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