Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series I spoke about Saturday: the beginnings of a tome about how to run for office. Let me know what you think about the progress so far.
Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage. – President Dwight D. Eisenhower
We may think elections are corrupt, particularly in the wake of the controversial 2020 balloting. Yet on the day after that fateful election, thousands of people woke up determined to change things, and the way they decided to make the corrections was to run for office.
There’s only one big problem with that: while running for office seems relatively easy – hey, I just fill out a little paperwork and get my name on the ballot, right? – the hard truth is that there is a process involved. This guide was intended to make the complex understandable and break the daunting task of electoral success down into easier steps, with the goal of winning elective office so you can more easily work to make needed changes.
It should be noted up front, however, that I’m writing this from the perspective of a conservative Christian who is most interested in getting like-minded people into local and state offices. While this guide could, in theory, be used as a how-to book for running for President, be advised that there were over 1,100 people who ran for that office in 2020 and you heard about only two or three of them who had national party backing, tons of press coverage, and millions upon millions of dollars to work with. If you already have all these qualifications I don’t believe you will need anything costing less than what your high-dollar consultant would charge for a nanosecond of his time.
As for the rest of you who wish to be service-minded citizen legislators and have no desire to make politics your sole purpose in life, read on, but bear this in mind: your desire to be a public servant doesn’t necessarily need to be only on the elective front. The world also needs volunteers to serve on the various boards, agencies, and other entities which affect people’s lives in the community. Oftentimes those who secure these unpaid positions, such as members of the zoning committee, library board, or other community service posts, parlay their experiences there into elective office by making those connections and friendships that ease the transition into elective politics. That’s a little bit of free advice for you (and also a good start to knowing yourself and knowing how to campaign, as you will find out.)
Another option is to make yourself indispensable to someone seeking office themselves. As you will eventually read, campaigns need volunteers. Sometimes those volunteers become paid staff and, every so often, become the successor candidate in his or her own right once the officeholder moves up or moves on. It’s certainly a good way to learn the ropes and can be a lot of fun if you’re working with the right candidate and the right people.
Since there’s so much to know about the process, I broke it into five “knows,” some of which I’ll delve into in this post and the next one, with others that may come as future writings of mine:
- Know yourself. This is the necessary first step before anything else can be accomplished.
- Know the office. Not just the procedures for being elected to it, but the duties and powers that are implicit in the position for which you are running.
- Know the rules. Most of this will have to do with party politics and campaign finance, but there are other coordination issues which can trip up first-time candidates as well.
- Know how to campaign – time and money. A successful campaign requires good time management skills since you can only be in one place at a time. It also requires enough funding to make building name recognition more successful in the places where you can’t be.
- Know how to win. When you are successful, do so with grace and humility. Be a leader and an example for others to follow.
Remember first that you don’t have to do this all by yourself; in fact, in most places you can’t go it alone because you need assistants just to be legally able to run.
My goal in writing this is to help create a crop of citizens who will devote a period of time in their life to bettering their community through the public service of political office.
Know yourself: Are you up for the challenge?
Since it’s most likely you’ve made the effort in reading this with the goal of running for and winning office, the first thing you should consider is what you want to accomplish by being there. You should really have a clear set of goals or governmental philosophy in mind, particularly if you’re running for an executive office. There you will certainly run into those whose desires are the opposite of yours: for example, you may be all in favor of reasonable growth and development in your area but others you’ll be working with may want all new development to come to a screeching halt – so it helps to be an eloquent spokesperson for your point of view. It’s also a good time to decide whether you will run under a party banner or not, although generally municipal races are non-partisan. (In most states, though, anyone who has access to voter registration records can likely find out your affiliation and voting pattern.) Regarding those party procedures, we’ll get to that a little bit later.
The next thing to weigh on that balance is your personality type. If you’re an introvert who doesn’t like to deal with people, this would not be the career (or even term or two in office) for you. Obviously you’ll have to put yourself out before the public on the campaign trail in order to earn their trust and their vote, and that’s not an easy thing to do for a person who likes to keep their private lives to themselves – and that’s even if you don’t have skeletons in your closet, a point I will get to shortly. Temperament is also key: voters don’t tend to look kindly on people who are known for flying off the handle and being verbally abusive. As you read on, you’ll find that secrets are hard to keep when you seek to become a public official.
Moreover, once you get into office the main thing constituents will expect for you is some sort of service and to remain active in the community. As their representative in an elected body or head of government, your personal “to-do” list becomes subordinate to the needs and desires of those who won’t necessarily choose those times convenient to you to express their opinions and requests. Elective office is certainly different than a 9-to-5, 40 hour per week job.
And speaking of job, another factor on your personal scale would be your financial situation. While we often hear of politicians who get fabulously wealthy after attaining high office, I’m hoping those of you reading this are in it for the right reasons and not as a get-rich-eventually scheme.
However, it’s a fact that most people who work for a living would probably have to take a pay cut to take a job as an elected official – oftentimes, it’s a full-time job that pays like a part-time one. For example, the job of County Executive of a county near my home – a county of 100,000 people which has a city of 35,000 as its seat and is a regional hub for a metro area twice that size – will have an annual salary of $107,000, beginning with the next term. (As a private-sector comparison, that salary is about what the average construction manager would expect to make.) In the brief history of the position, the county has elected two executives, one being a longtime government employee and the other a self-employed businessman. Someone with the type of experience required may see the salary as insufficient for their needs, and the same holds true for representative positions. On the other hand, offices where this may be less of a problem are more specialized positions such as county attorney, sheriff, engineer, or insurance commissioner. Those positions may pay more commensurate to the required education and experience.
Rehashing your past
Next on the consideration list is a sad fact of life: the advent of social media and easily accessible public records means it’s more likely any misstatements or mistakes in your past will be dredged up. Any off-color joke you passed along because you thought it was funny, fight you had with a neighbor where the police were called, nasty divorce, or history of drug use (as in “I did not inhale”) will surely find its way into a campaign, sooner or later. Whether it’s a disqualifying factor really depends on the offense, the voter, and the position being sought.
In 2020, there were two Republican candidates in my state of Delaware who ran for federal office despite serious mistakes they had made in their lives that landed them in prison. While Matthew Morris could not overcome this and other factors in losing his U.S. House primary, U.S. Senate candidate Lauren Witzke made opioid addiction a key part of her platform. Once incarcerated as an addict and convicted drug runner, Lauren got herself clean, served her sentence, and later ran a religious-based organization focusing on teens who were disadvantaged. More importantly for this narrative, she was up front about the issues she had, choosing not to try and hide them. While she was unsuccessful running against an incumbent in a heavily Democrat state, she brought issues to the forefront which may have been ignored with a more conventional candidate.
As I see it, to be a public servant honesty is the best policy. There are always people who envy you, covet what you have, and don’t want you to succeed. Like crabs pulling the one which is managing to escape back into the cage, their job seems to be that of preventing others to be successful.
Once you have convinced yourself that you’re emotionally able to run for and succeed in office, and you verify your financial situation is such that you can handle the job with or without sacrifices, the next important step is securing the blessing of your family. Without them in your corner, you may gain office but lose everything you love – and that’s no way to live.
It’s obviously easier for a single person to run for office, but many of those who have the most desirable traits for officeholders are also the ones who have settled down in life and begun a family. If that’s your situation, then getting the buy-in from the wife and kids is the logical next step. They have to be made aware of the proverbial anal exam your life will undergo and prepare themselves for it – even the most popular person in town has a few enemies with an axe to grind and those in the political opposition who don’t mind playing dirty to keep the other side down. This is particularly an issue when a candidate has school-age children; truthfully family concerns are the biggest hurdle against “normal” people running for office. It may not be the main thing for an aspirant for a local position, but once you get into the realm of state legislator and higher office, security of loved ones becomes a little bit of a concern.
Finally – and this is somewhat related to the personality aspects I began this post with – one running for office needs to ask whether he or she can complete the sale to a voter. In the end, elections are about you convincing the majority of the electorate that you are the proper person to address their concerns, provide constituent service when required, and remain a vital part of the community despite having other duties. No candidate is going to get 100 percent of the vote in a contested election, but the idea is to have the most votes of anyone running in cases where there’s no Electoral College to contend with.
In the next part, we’ll look at knowing the office.