So you want to run for office? Go for it, but first you might want to read this.
Fourteen years ago, my husband and I moved back to my hometown to be closer to my aging parents. Soon after arriving, I began reading
letters-to-the-editors about a very talented high school athlete who was deeply involved in drugs. He was making news because he was caught burglarizing homes, looking for valuables to pawn for drug money. The letters were condemnations of the young man and the football coach who refused to kick him off the team.
I saw in those letters the same misconceptions about adolescent substance abuse that I dealt with in my years as director of a student assistance program for a northern New Mexico school district. I wrote a long letter-to-the-editor with the purpose of educating the community about adolescent substance abuse and addiction, and the day it was published, the mayor called on me to set up and lead a community substance abuse task force. And that's how I became a school board member. No, it wasn’t that easy, but that appointment made it possible to run for the board of education. My purpose here is to offer my advice based on this experience and maybe a tiny bit of wisdom that will help any of you considering answering the call from President Obama and many of the speakers at the Women’s Marches to run for public office, particularly at the local level.
1. Choose an issue about which you're passionate and get involved. Not only will you be helping the cause and community, you will have a conduit for name recognition. Be a leader for the cause. No, I don’t mean usurp the leadership, but offer ideas, offer your home for meetings, and offer your time. You will be noticed. Although I knew lots of folks from my youth, I still needed to become reacquainted with my hometown. No, I didn't intentionally set out to get involved or run for any office, but in hindsight I realized that my name recognition gained from leading the drug task force made running for public office possible. My sudden appearance in the public’s eye was rather serendipitous, but you can make the same thing happen.
By the time the position on the school board opened, my name was associated with the drug task force and my concern for kids had been established because I was a frequent guest speaker at civic organizations and public forums. This segues into my next piece of advice.
2. Practice your speaking skills or “speechifying.” I didn’t have a problem with public speaking because I had spent over 30 years as a high school teacher and college instructor. While a district administrator, I trained countless administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Plus, as my friends and family will tell you, I’m just a ham so I didn’t have a problem with this aspect of campaigning. This public speaking thing, however, may be intimidating for you, so I offer a few suggestions. Don’t emulate Trump. No. No. No. However, what you need to do is practice, practice, practice. Practice alone in front of a mirror, in front of family and friends, and in meetings. Gradually you will find the courage, confidence and skills you will need when you face an audience. Some community colleges have public speaking classes. Ask the local speech teacher to help you. Maybe even go to the local high school’s speech and debate team practices or tournaments for pointers. The resources are there in your own community, although you may have to search for them.
3. After teaching for over 30 years, a run for school board was an obvious choice for me, but maybe you’re unsure where your fit might be. Ask yourself where your cause or concern would best fit with public office. If you’re concerned with the infrastructure in your community, and who isn’t, and want something done about the potholes and rough streets, then set your sights on city council. I’m not suggesting you become a one-issue candidate, so ask yourself what else in your community concerns you. Maybe you also want better training in community policing or more recycling or better city park playground equipment. Search for your niche; Join a group building new playground equipment or attend public forums on community policing or infrastructure. Educate yourself about what concerns you. If you’re going to run for office, you need to be knowledgeable.
My extensive knowledge about best practices in education both from the point-of-view of a classroom teacher and administrator, as president of the local teachers’ union and the mother of two daughters I gave me an advantage going into the campaign because I already had a resume suited to the office I was seeking. That might not be case for you. However, you can build one, which leads me to my fourth piece of advice.
4. Identify what in your background makes you a winning candidate: degrees, professional and volunteer work experience, church, civic club or organization memberships along with offices you might have held or committee work you might have done. When you run for office, newspapers may want copies of your resume and qualifications. They certainly will ask you questions about both. I ran for office in a town with a population of 25,000, but you may be in a large metro area that has local television too, so you may be under greater scrutiny but also have the potential for greater exposure. You might even be asked for some sort of philosophy; I was asked about my philosophy of education. You may find your resume lacking in some way, so do what you can to strengthen it. I do not mean pad it; use it as a guide to help identify what experiences or knowledge you need to gain.
I didn’t count on donations because I was not willing to ask for any. My parents, both retired educators, did donate to my campaign. Other than that, I planned on funding my campaign myself. However, many in town were very dissatisfied with the direction of the school district, and consequently, people donated to my campaign. Here’s the catch. Just like in national or state campaigns, those donations come with expectations. Some wanted the superintendent or the football coach fired. The union wanted a reliable ally. I solved my real dilemma by promising only to make the best decisions for students. Every donor understood that, but still applied pressure after I was on the board. Be resolute and strong. I never thought about reelection because I knew that might influence my decisions while on the board.
5. Decide about accepting donations before you do anything else. Know campaign financing rules and reporting requirements. If you feel uncomfortable accepting a donation from any potential donor, don’t do it. Prepare a budget and use your money carefully. I did some research into effective ways to publicize a campaign and leaned heavily on that advice. I had my artistic daughter paint bill boards for me in white and blue, the high school colors. Keep your slogan clean and simple. Mine was “Kids First.” I only put important information on the billboards, my slogan, name and district. Then I identified major cross streets with high traffic and placed my billboards there even if they were outside my district. I purchased fliers and tee shirts all identical to the billboards. I asked 20 friends who were active in the community to wear the tee shirts whenever and wherever possible. They wore them to football games, pancake breakfasts, bunko and bridge clubs, etc. About a week before the election, a group of volunteers spread out across my district with the fliers and talked to the folks I hoped to represent. The largest expense was for newspaper ads. I let people know I would be happy to speak before organizations about my candidacy.
Don’t think you’ll avoid some dirty politics; I certainly didn’t. Friends of the incumbent wouldn’t let me put my billboards on their vacant lots although they allowed every other candidate to do so. Although school district rules strictly forbade district administrators from campaigning or showing any preference for a candidate, some who didn’t want to see me on the board met secretly with my opponent, the president of the school board, to strategize ways to defeat me and spread rumors about me as well as urging teachers to reject me. Fortunately, I spent a lot of time building a coalition that gathered support for me. You must be firm, strong, and positive, no matter what is thrown at you.
As tough as the campaign may be, serving in public office will be tougher. You will be pulled by many factions, some very radical, who will try to thwart you on every position you take. It will be a very rocky road at times. The board I was on wanted to open a mental health and medical clinic at the high school, and we made it clear in statements and in public forums that no birth control in any form would be dispensed. We hoped we could at some time, but this was a very conservative community where just opening a clinic was controversial. Despite that the board room was packed with opposition forces, some of whom accused us of being baby killers. Sometimes other members were duplicitous and undermined the rest of us. Sometimes I did not have a single ally on board. These were the times I had to reach deep inside and summon courage I didn’t know I had.
No one should enter the political arena with a false sense of security or misguided expectations. However, I will tell you that my time on the board was worth the pain, exasperation, and frustrations because we passed policies and created programs that greatly benefited students.
If you are elected to public office, you can be a force for good. Do not let it pass you by. I would vote for you.