Run for Office? Maybe Not.
My day job for six years has been to recruit people to run for local and state office. So I should be excited about media reports that more people are signing up to run. But I’m not. That’s because not everyone should run for office, and here are three reasons why.
A Network is not a base. Many first-time candidates assume that having a large network means they have a base of voters from which to draw. That’s simply not the case. Often, people who lack recent local roots, who haven’t spent time cultivating relationships, or who don’t have a history of doing good work in the community make the mistake of assuming that knowing lots of people around the country will help them win a race. But enthusiasm from our friends, colleagues or fellow alumni doesn’t automatically translate into votes where it matters — on the ground in our school districts, towns and cities. We’ll see how this plays out in the upcoming special election to replace Tom Price in Georgia’s sixth Congressional district, where Jon Osoff is facing carpetbagger accusations since he recently returned to Atlanta after an extended time in Washington, DC.
Dollars don’t equal doors. Candidates often assume the ability to raise money means they can connect with voters at the doors. Candidates with national name recognition are most likely to fall into this trap. Their large networks can donate to their campaign but often don’t live in their district. Successful fundraising is simply about cash in the bank and not about votes at the ballot box. Without knocking on doors, we can’t know what voters or potential voters think about us. That can lead to a rude awakening on Election Day. In Anaheim, California, incumbent Jordan Brandman lost to community leader Jose Moreno, despite outspending the Moreno campaign 20:1 (figure includes independent expenditures).
Trust voters, not just yourself. Finally, and perhaps most troubling, is candidates’ notions that they know what’s best for voters. I recently heard this from Micah White, who helped create the Occupy Wall Street movement and ran for Mayor of Nehalem, Oregon, and said, “We could have activists take over small towns for the benefit of people who live there and the people who are going to move there, and actualize all of the grand ideas that we have on the left.” Overestimating our ability to convince voters that we know best is treacherous. And not in the spirit of public service.
In our work at the New American Leaders Project, we too are guilty as accused — of encouraging people to run for office. But we do so with the recognition that America needs candidates who have community connections, an understanding of peoples’ concerns, and the voters’ trust. Candidates new to a community can win, and money and ideas do matter. But before putting your name on the ballot, consider reading this post on how to get ready. Meanwhile, and maybe even instead, mobilize your network to volunteer for and donate to community leaders who already have a base and a local track record.