“Don’t Get Mad, Get Elected” – Lessons from Local Lawyers’ Campaigns for Office

A Roundtable with Guest Editor, Marta Vanegas

For this issue, we approached a handful of local lawyers who ran for political office, and asked them a few of our most pressing questions. We interviewed Candace Andersen, a former prosecuting attorney in her hometown of Honolulu and civil practitioner with a law firm in Morgan Hill, now the Chair of Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors and District 2 supervisor; Kristina Lawson, real estate attorney and former Walnut Creek mayor and city councilmember; real estate attorney and Mayor of Orinda Inga Miller; insurance defense litigator, former Martinez City Council candidate, and current Martinez Unified School Board candidate Courtney Masella O’Brien; Jerome Pandell, a civil litigator and former candidate for the San Ramon Valley Unified School Board; and Mister Phillips, who is a civil litigator and member of the West Contra Costa County Unified School Board. We hope you will find inspiration in their stories and advice.

Contra Costa Lawyer: How did you get involved in local politics?

Candace Andersen: I passed the bar studying for it with flashcards on the floor of the playroom with my baby and toddler. Ever since, I wanted a career that would allow me to balance my family with my career. By the time I had four children, I felt I needed to move on from my part time law practice towards public service. I saw two openings on local commissions advertised on TV, and I decided to go for it. I heard nothing back, but a few weeks later I saw myself appointed to two city commissions on TV!

Inga Miller: For me, it really came about as a result of being a member of CCCBA. In particular, the Women’s Section was an amazing network of women who came together for monthly power lunches where we mentored each other, and it was instrumental in both getting my practice started and encouraging my run for the city council of Orinda. I was approached by Victoria Robinson Smith at one of these lunches who flat out asked me to run for her seat, because she did not intend to run again. She was incredibly supportive and encouraging to me.

Courtney Masella O’Brien: I had a similar experience. Four years ago, I was approached by an editor of the Contra Costa Lawyer who knew that I was politically engaged on my Facebook page. She asked me to write an article on running for office. At about the same time, the Women’s Section held an event with California Women Lawyers, about running for office as an option for lawyers. Candace, you were there presenting.

Candace Andersen: Yes, I remember, it was a fun event, and I got to talk to quite a few of you there.

Courtney Masella O’Brien: Candace and Victoria Robinson Smith were there, and I approached them for the Contra Costa Lawyer article, and I also spoke with a few councilwomen for Martinez. While writing that piece, I decided to run for city council of Martinez. I noticed that a lot of the council members were older than the demographics of the city, and I wanted to give a voice to the young parents of Martinez and help them bring their ideas forward and represent their interests.

Jerome Pandell: I was a college newspaper reporter at Northwestern University, following the rise of a skinny state senator with a unique name who was making a longshot bid in the Democratic Party primary for an open U.S. Senate seat for Illinois. I met Barack Obama at local Democratic Club meetings and community events, and I saw Michelle Obama at the Barnum & Bagel in Skokie, Illinois, campaigning for state and local candidates.  This taught me that local government and politics genuinely impact the lives of citizens. After graduation from law school, I helped found the Contra Costa Young Democrats and decided to run for a seat on the San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Education because I went to SRVUSD schools and felt invested in their success.

Mister Phillips: Public service came natural to me. I was born into a public service family; my parents were peace officers.

Kristina Lawson: I, too, have always been interested in politics. I think there are two kinds of people, those with the political gene and those without, but politics was also related to my law practice. Land use is inherently political because in order to get the permits, you’re usually interfacing with a municipality. I was encouraged to apply for the planning commission first, which aligned well with what I do professionally. It was a natural progression from that position to run for Walnut Creek city council.

Who would you say were the most helpful to you? Did you have any mentors or organizations that supported you?

Candace Andersen: I was sitting on three separate boards with a county supervisor, so after one board meeting, I approached her about running for county supervisor. After her initial surprise subsided, she laid out everything that she thought was important to know about the board of supervisors. Only after this conversation did I actually decide to run. I even won her endorsement for the position, which I think may have been critical to my first win.

Inga Miller: I got wonderful assistance from all sources, some I knew before my campaign and some I just met. For example, one of my mentors flat out told me to ask for an endorsement by my party. So, I went for an interview, and there in the hallway, I met a woman who was a second-time candidate. She asked me, are you doing all these things? And she rattled off a to-do list, even though I did not know her at all, and she offered to help going forward.

Kristina Lawson: I leaned on a lot of friends. I was familiar with campaigns through my client work, and I got networked into that group. I also started to make some calls on my own. In many small municipalities, your best campaign advisors are your neighbors and friends in the community. You need to call them and ask for their opinion. You will be surprised about how helpful they will be.

Courtney Masella O’Brien: I have been involved in the county chapter of my party, too. They are an incredible source of support and mentoring. And my sister helped me to figure out how to do Facebook ads. My entire family helped me walk precincts and deliver flyers, and lots of friends did the same.

Do you believe that being a lawyer is an asset for a political career?

Kristina Lawson: I think being a lawyer helped me immensely. Lawyers know how to read and digest information, a helpful skill when you consider the sheer volume of material that you have to consume. Lawyers know how to research, to prioritize, organize our thinking the same way we would organize a brief or a memo. On the city council, we also have the public speaking to us on challenging issues; you need to think quickly on your feet to succeed.

Candace Andersen: Being an attorney gave me a measure of credibility and projected my seriousness. Most of my colleagues were not attorneys; some of them were more educated than others. Being a lawyer trained me in the understanding of what the law meant, how government works. I knew I could figure things out.

Inga Miller: Time management skills you learn as a lawyer are critical. The most valuable skill we have is to know when to delegate and how much to supervise. This has to be done when campaigning: hire a campaign staff, have people signed up to get endorsements, walk precincts, make phone calls. If you are trying to do all of the jobs, you won’t have time for the important thing.

Courtney Masella O’Brien: As attorneys, we may get a little bit of a break, as people know already that we’re smart and that we know how to accomplish things.

Jerome Pandell: But many have misconceptions about lawyers, too. Everyone believes lawyers like to argue.  So, I would emphasize that my practice involves negotiating, amicably resolving a conflict through mediation and settlement. Of course, as an advocate for my client, I am prepared and willing to take a case to trial and argue motions in court.  But that is not what lawyers do every day, or not what the majority of practice usually entails.

Mister Phillips: Lawyers tend to have good listening, problem solving, and public speaking skills, which all are helpful to connect with voters and listen to their concerns carefully. On the flip side, lawyers can be too professorial. That does not always play well on the campaign trail, as most people dislike know-it-alls.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of running for office?

Inga Miller: It starts with just making sure that you present yourself the way that you want people to perceive you. You must be careful on your social media, and in the way you live your life, that you treat people the way that you want people to remember and know you, live your life in a way that shows that you devote yourself to the public effort.

Candace Andersen: I would advise you to ignore your imposter syndrome, like I did when I ran for County Supervisor for the first time. If you’re thinking of running, start getting involved in your community, read your local papers, read the newsletters in your mailbox, know what the issues are, periodically tune into your city council, look at their agendas, check NextDoor. Finally, do not hesitate to, for example, make an appointment with your mayor. They are there, and they are elected to talk to you. I am always happy to speak with anyone who is interested in getting involved.

Courtney Masella O’Brien: I can attest to that: I have been talking to Candace, and she has always been willing to talk to me.

Candace Andersen: But running is not the only option for getting involved. Look at your city’s website; there are lots of commissions and committees where citizens volunteer. You can apply for one of those, wherever you feel you could bring your expertise. Get appointed to one of those commissions and get to know the people who make your locality work.

Courtney Masella O’Brien: I agree, running a city takes people who are willing to fill those volunteer positions and spend several hours every month on various boards and committees. Putting in that volunteer time pays off. It opens doors.

Jerome Pandell: I agree.  Find the role that fits your talents, don’t just run for the most prestigious post.

Mister Phillips: You have to ask yourself some tough questions before deciding to run. You need to know the official and unofficial qualifications for the office you seek, and how you could contribute, do the job better. You must be clear on your motivation for running. Have realistic time expectations that you can devote to the campaign — and to the job. You need to know ahead of time what you are giving up for—and what you will get from—the position. You must have your family on board. And you have to be ready both to win and to lose.

Inga Miller: If you have never run before, go knock on doors. Buy some lawn signs. Ask people to endorse you. Start campaigning early, as early as you can.

Kristina Lawson: Today’s campaign is not the same, with so much done on digital platforms, and with the COVID emergency, even more digital outreach is happening, so you obviously have to be dialed into that. And I would try to reach those who are not yet politically active, because that is an area where Walnut Creek in particular needs improvement. The people who are silent or neutral about the city’s direction – we cannot take them for granted.

Any final words?

Mister Phillips: Candidates should be confident but honest with themselves. In my first campaign, I ran against a sitting county supervisor. In hindsight, I would not have run, as I was not ready to play at that level. I would have taken more time to develop my skills and build relationships.

Candace Andersen: I would advise you to follow your passions. Especially women: you are more qualified than you think.

Jerome Pandell: Definitely start early in the season and make sure you clean your litigation slate during the campaign. I had to prepare and take a case to trial while I was also campaigning… that’s not something I’d recommend!

Courtney Masella O’Brien: Even if your first campaign does not bring about the result you want, you got your name out there, you learned how to run a campaign, you built relationships, you can’t help but do better next time. And, then, just start earlier next time, so that you can raise more money, because even in a small, local race, it still takes a lot of money.

Kristina Lawson: So, go for it: engage in the process, be a part of it, and vote!

(As told to Marta R. Vanegas.)