Thinking About Running for Office?
Lawyers often possess the skills needed to be effective civic leaders. More than half of United States Presidents have been lawyers. Attorneys are educated and trained to solve problems, apply laws, communicate difficult concepts, collaborate with others to reach agreement, justify, and defend positions. As an advocate, the attorney’s role is to obtain the best outcome for his client. Similarly, elected officials take a stand on a particular issue and negotiate with other politicians in an attempt to bring about the change being advocated to benefit their constituent.
Despite the similar skill sets, running for office can be a daunting task, even for attorneys. Campaigning for and holding public office can be time consuming and stressful. Prior to officially launching a campaign, Contra Costa County District II County Supervisor, and attorney, Candace Andersen counsels that it is crucial for potential candidates to identify their grass roots support, create a marketing plan, establish an internet presence, and write a solid ballot statement.
Grass Roots Support
To start, Supervisor Andersen suggests identifying community leaders, friends, and trusted colleagues to discuss a potential run for office. Potential candidates should use these community members to gain a better understanding of important issues. These grass roots supporters will be essential for generating campaign donations, helping canvass neighborhoods, placing yard signs, writing supportive letters to the editor, and serving as a support system through the campaign.
If a candidate’s supporters are involved in the community, other community members will look to them for ideas on who to support. Orinda Mayor and attorney Victoria Smith agreed: Local endorsements are key for a successful run for local office.
Martinez Vice Mayor and County Supervisor candidate Anamarie Avila Farias echoed that grass roots support is critical. First and foremost, Vice Mayor Avila Farias advised that a potential candidate should determine how her candidacy will affect her family and her career. Most elected offices at the local level are not full time jobs, but they are time consuming. Campaigning is time consuming and it is essential to garner the moral support of a candidate’s family and employer. She emphasized that potential candidates must find their voice and identify their “kitchen cabinet.”
Finding Your Own Voice
Before entering a race, its important for the candidate to identify her point of view and influence in order to answer key foundational questions: What issues are important to you and why? What do you hope to change in your community? Why will you and your ideas be a benefit to your community?
The concept of a “kitchen cabinet,” is to help recruit and organize volunteers, create positive chatter, help with door-to-door canvassing, and assist with small fundraising tasks. Ideally, candidates should identify a core team of five, advises Vice Mayor Avila Farias. But while a kitchen cabinet will be a huge help, it should not make important strategic and issue decisions for a candidate’s campaign, advises Supervisor Andersen. Ultimately, those decisions are the candidate’s alone.
As a candidate finds her voice and creates a campaign platform, it will be important to keep her grass roots supporters and kitchen cabinet in mind as they must embrace her platform.
The internet is a key and inexpensive marketing resource. All candidates should assess and establish their internet presence early, according to Supervisor Andersen. In marketing, branding yourself is important. Simply put, a candidate’s brand is the immediate image, message or emotion that voters will receive and remember about the candidate. Therefore, candidates should determine their brand early and must be consistent through the campaign.
First, candidates should conduct Google searches on themselves to determine what comes up in the search results. There are some simple ways to increase how and where a candidate appears in Google search results such as patch.com, letters to the editor, and opinion editorial pieces.
Candidates must set up a Facebook page and secure a domain name. Domain names can be set up fairly inexpensively at sites like godaddy.com. If a candidate does not want to or cannot pay for a website designer, free resources can be found at sites such as democracy.com and the Smart Voter Guide from the League of Women Voters. Candidates should also use social media, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter because many voters will look to these sites when deciding their vote.
Print marketing costs money, but is also essential, advises Supervisor Andersen. Candidates will need lawn signs, door hangers, post cards, and newspaper advertisements. Depending on the size of the race, costly slate mailers may be essential. A slate mailer is a publication created by a campaign or for-profit consulting service that is mailed to voters and contains lists of candidates or ballot measures, along with recommendations and endorsements.
It is not unusual for candidates even at the local level to hire campaign consultants to aid with a marketing plan and the crucial ballot statement.
Depending on the community’s size and whether groups will likely oppose one’s candidacy, a consultant may not be necessary.
Having a good ballot statement is crucial, advises Martinez City Councilwoman Debbie McKillop. Many people throw away door hangers and mailers but will look to the ballot statements when deciding for whom to vote. For this reason, the ballot statement must reflect a candidate’s values, qualifications, ability to represent the constituents, an understanding of the community’s needs and concerns, and the candidate’s vision for the community’s future.
The ballot statement should never bring a candidate’s credibility into question.
A candidate’s list of occupations and accomplishments should carefully and truthfully layout why the candidate is qualified for the position. Candidates should establish a focus group to read and re-read the ballot statement several times. Proofread, proofread, proofread, and avoid typos.
So What’s Next?
Once a candidate files the necessary paper work to run, opens a campaign bank account, and perfects the ballot statement, it is time to get out in the community to meet voters, attend community events, locate potential donors, and network, network, network.
Candidates will walk the precincts and give potential voters campaign literature. If they are not home, candidates will leave a door hanger, which will be a crucial way to garner support and get out the vote. Candidates will do a lot of walking in the months leading up to their election. This face-to-face contact in the community provides the candidate an opportunity to show one’s commitment to the community and explain the candidate’s platform, concerns, and vision if elected.
Lastly, and very importantly, candidates must have a thick skin. Not everyone will be receptive. A candidate must be ready to accept that not everyone will like them Candidates must expect that some people will tell them so and may say other unfavorable things. “Don’t waste your energy on the naysayers; embrace the people who believe in you,” says Vice Mayor Avila Farias.
A Note on Female Candidates
In a year in which the United States will have its first major party female nominee for President, the number of women who hold public office is still surprisingly low. According to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), in 2016, only 19.4 percent of the U.S. Congress is female. This breaks down to 104 women in the House of Representatives, and 20 female senators. And only 24.4 percent of state executives are female. In 2016, the U.S. has six women governors, 12 lieutenant governors and 58 other statewide female-elected officials. Clearly, there is progress to be made in gender parity in elected office.
Attorneys can bring indispensable skills to elected office, and so too can women in all fields of employment. Women have different life experiences than men, and so bring new perspectives into policy making. Women also tend to bring a more collaborative approach to policy making, and consider average citizens in decision making. The CAWP’s book, The Impact of Women in Public Office: Findings at a Glance reported that female legislators were more likely to cite citizens as helpful sources in working on top-priority bills. The same report showed that 57 percent of female legislators were more likely to opt for government in public view rather than government behind closed doors, compared to 32 percent of men.
Women policymakers are also more likely to prioritize women’s issues that might otherwise be overlooked, such as reproductive rights, maternity leave, and equal pay. This is likely also due to the different life experiences of men and women.
Regardless of gender, if you feel your voice or perspective could effectuate positive change and benefit your community, public office might be for you. It will likely involve a lot of hard work, but once you establish your grass roots support, your effective marketing plan, and stellar ballot statement, you will be well on your way to success at the polls.
If you are considering a run for public office, you may find the following resources helpful:
emergeca.org (Emerge California)
cwl.org (search for “Elect to Run”)