This is the second of two parts; the first part is here.
Once you know you’re ready to seek office and have the family’s blessing, the next step is knowing what you’re getting into insofar as the duties of the office you seek are concerned.
As I briefly alluded to in the previous post, there are certain offices which require a specialization that limits the available pool of people who are qualified. For example, a county attorney would have to be a member in good standing of the state’s legal bar or a county engineer would have to be a registered engineer in the state. In a small county or other locality that could limit the potential pool of those who can seek the office to a few dozen or fewer. By that same token, party offices which are on the ballot would require the aspirant to be a member of that political party.
Most offices, though, have relatively few qualifications aside from age or legal standing, and in those cases where cities or counties have home rule and qualifications aren’t included in state law, those are usually found within the locality’s charter or constitution. However, these basic qualifications don’t include a list of duties which are also required (or requested) for participation: everything from regular public meetings and work sessions of a local council to the office hours required for someone like a clerk of courts. In the case of specialized positions, a careful reading of the law is good but having a friendly supporter who knows the office (perhaps having served there or in a similar position) is an even better asset.
To be or not to be in a party?
Once that question is answered, the next regards party affiliation. There are some offices (mainly municipal) which have elections deemed to be non-partisan, while county, state, and federal offices are almost always sought via partisan primaries. While there is no ironclad requirement to have a party affiliation to run for those offices, the rules – unfair as they may be – make it much simpler to run as a member of either the Republican or Democratic parties. There are myriad regulations which will apply in different states, so this general guidance comes with the caveat emptor that there are always exceptions to the rule.
As I noted above, more often than not municipal elections are non-partisan; thus your voter registration will not come into play insofar as appearing on the ballot. (In some cases, though, parties will send out a list of their endorsed candidates to registered voters as well as hand them out at the polling place.) But it’s a funny thing about municipal elections: there are many, many cases where they are begging for candidates to the point where the remaining legislative body might be required to appoint a town councilman because no one ran for the post in an election. If you’re lucky enough to be the sole applicant for such a position, congratulations and enjoy your term in office.
In the more likely case there will be a contested election, local rules will dictate the requirements for a primary, which (if necessary) is normally held several weeks before the general election and winnows the field down as required. There are also filing deadlines and campaign finance rules to be aware of, which will be more generally outlined a little later.
Learning the ropes
But since most of those who are interested in public office seek a legislative position such as a school board or county council seat, or to become a member of a larger body such as a state House or Senate, one of the best things to do in preparation for the task ahead is to learn the position. At a basic level, this is fairly simple: for example, many local city council meetings are broadcast online or via their public access channel so you can see how the meetings are conducted. (The agenda should be made available as well.) In addition, a good guide to that sort of parliamentary procedure is a book called Robert’s Rules of Order, which is widely available. Most legislative bodies use that as a basic procedural manual, adapting to local customs as necessary. Work sessions and other non-public meetings, though, may be conducted in a less formal manner to permit greater discussion and presentation.
However, the more difficult task may be learning about the legal liabilities and exemptions public officials in a particular state or locality are entitled to. There are laws against malfeasance and misfeasance in office that are put there to guard against people using the public trust to enrich themselves or to conspire with others for those ends; however, there are also exemptions from certain types of liability based on being a public official.
One of the best ways to find out about all these things is to ask those who have been in office about them. Of course, there is some circumspection required in that your political opponent who is already in the office won’t be readily volunteering information about the job, but there are others who would be on your side to ask, too. Having served in the office, they would know the ins and outs of the task as well as how to dot the i’s and cross the t’s to keep things legal.
Asking of experts and knowing the laws are even more important if the position you seek is an executive one – not just being a mayor or governor, but also for positions like clerk of the court or a commissioner of agriculture. In these cases, there are oftentimes staffing issues to be dealt with, especially if you’re faced with a decision whether to maintain the employees who may have been part of the problem with how your opponent ran things or be the new broom that sweeps clean and perhaps has to reinvent the wheel until they’re up to speed. Sometimes the office full of political loyalists is the obstacle that needs to be eliminated to better serve the public.
For executive positions, it helps to have a platform you want to implement, something which should be simple in principle (perhaps three to four main points) but have ideas and talking points to back them up. Let’s say you wanted to run for mayor because you feel city services are lacking for the taxes you’re paying. (And who doesn’t?) In that case your platform may be one of providing more efficient city services while holding the line on taxes, and that’s a start. The next logical step would be to determine what you would do with the surplus: perhaps you would rebate taxpayers through lower taxes, increase the frequency of trash pickup, or you may want to acquire land for a new park. In other words, a good platform should have a short-term item or two as well as a vision for the longer term. Bear in mind, however, that your executive vision can only go as far as the legislative branch will allow because, in most cases, they approve the budget. This is where the selling of your platform to voters comes in handy because the legislative branch has the most important votes in terms of running in office as opposed to for office.
If you are a government skeptic like me, you generally believe that there’s healthy pruning to be made among all its branches. Unfortunately, not everyone is of that same mindset and indeed there are many worthy tasks a local or state government should take upon themselves to do. It’s why the slash-and-burn approach to government isn’t popular or proper, and why there’s always a spoonful of sugar required for people to take the required medicine.
And just as there’s a role for government to play, there’s a role for knowing the legal rules around running a campaign. This is why you need some helpers.
Depending on the office, the first volunteer you may need is a campaign treasurer. That person tracks the money going in and going out, which is a vital part of the process. In small campaigns like those where a treasurer is needed, that person could be your spouse or significant other, a co-worker, or a trusted friend, but in more major campaigns it’s most helpful to have an experienced hand at your side because there are significant legal and financial ramifications for that person selected as campaign treasurer if deadlines are missed or improper reporting or foul play is discovered. You’ll find that having a good treasurer is like gold, and oftentimes the same person is used by a candidate as long as he or she is in office because then there’s no need to reinvent the wheel of learning the ins and outs of campaign finance.
In my opinion, after a treasurer says yes there are two other volunteer positions that need to be filled right away. The first is the person for coordinating the scheduling, which is extremely important: even in local races there’s a need for having someone who tracks the places the candidate needs to be to gather support such as forums, festivals, and fairs, leads organization of door-to-door and/or phone bank efforts on the candidate’s behalf, and can be the contact person and gatekeeper for the campaign.
A close second, particularly in this day and age, is the social media and website coordinator. (On a local level it may be possible for one person to wear both hats, but once you get beyond the municipal level it’s really two tasks.) Again, in my humble opinion, early on that person needs to impress upon the campaign treasurer that money should be spent on a good-quality, professionally-produced website and not something that looks like an off-the-shelf DIY job. If the funds aren’t there, the next best thing would be a well-run, frequently-updated social media site (in fact, the candidate can secure the domain name that redirects there until a more formal website can be secured) – on the other hand, good social media may be all that’s necessary for small local races and it’s still vital for any race, whether local, state, or national.
There is one other piece of advice I want to give before I move on, and this is an important one in larger campaigns: be prepared to “smile and dial.” As I said in part one, something I never liked to do was ask people for anything and money is at the bottom of the list of things I would like to ask for. Unless you have the means to self-fund your campaign, though, it requires you to ask for money and in-kind donations, such as a venue to conduct your fundraiser.
This is about as far as I got with the subject, and aside from just writing the last five paragraphs about the volunteers it was the start of what I thought could be a nice pamphlet-sized e-book guide with more expert advice.
So I need two things: input on whether this is something viable for me to pursue, and, if so, more help from experts in the world of organizing campaigns. Most of those folks are a bit busy right now, but there will be a slack time sometime we may be able to talk.
I just get so frustrated when people who I think would be excellent candidates fail because they have no idea what they are getting into – maybe they found out too late that the economics weren’t viable or the family really wasn’t that supportive once the other side began giving out grief.
But there are still ways for them to help the cause: just look at me. Yes, I’ve been on the ballot before and won – and I have lost, too. Losing hurt, and I took it personally. However, in my case, the way I had served in the previous time made me indispensible to the cause so they found a way to keep me onboard until a vacancy occurred and I could be reappointed. And a few of them still miss me as I’m no longer around, but I’m in the next phase of life now.
If I had asked myself these questions earlier on, would I have become involved? Probably. But the learning experience about the process (and my individual abilities and talents) also led me to know that I have my place in the fight as a journalist, advocate, and observer, not as an elected official. Perhaps someone who reads this, though, may have the aptitude needed to advance the cause of Constitutional government as an educator and public official, and that’s why I wrote this brief series and put it out there as a possibility for revised and extended remarks. Let’s hope I can find some of those folks.