From There's Nothing To Do Here!, Running for Public Office
by Mason Adams

It’s easy to complain. Especially when it’s about the apparently anonymous “They.”

“Did you see where they are building a new Wal-Mart?”

“They’re blocking off the road for the next 6 months
for construction.”

“I heard they’re gonna pass a law saying you can’t skateboard downtown.”

Who are “They?” and how do they have so much power? In the three examples above, “they” is a different entity each time. In the first, it’s a developer and the Wal-Mart corporation. In the second, it’s most likely the state department of transportation. In the third, the town council. Now, the important question is, “How can we impact what They are doing?” The answer, at least in the first two cases, is “not much.” Once those things are already under construction, it’s too late. In the third, of course, you can go and speak out against the proposed law before the council votes on it.

If you keep up with your town and state agencies, often you can find out about all three of these before it’s too late. Usually there’s a public comment period for major projects. And if there’s not you can always write a letter the department head or project supervisor. Ideally, you should be able to keep up with things by reading your local newspaper. Marketing studies show that 20- and 30-somethings, a group much desired by newspapers hungry for new readers, are interested mostly in hard, national news. That’s great, but individuals can have a much greater impact on the local level.

Local papers are generally the best sources for keeping up with issues affecting you, not to mention the times and locations of meetings where you can go and speak your mind to the people making decisions on a town and county level. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get the bulk of your news from one paper. More likely, that won’t be the case. Since any one event can be interpreted and spun a number of different ways, diversity counts in news, so use a number of sources, not just the local free alternative weekly.

It’s important to see details as well as the big picture, and despite what they may try to tell you, no one paper can cover this variety of perspective. So read a lot. Write letters to local politicians and to the paper. Talk to a lot of people, not just your friends. Discussion and debate in themselves are a step forward. And if you really want to make a change, consider running for public office.

It’s not that big of a stretch, really. Young candidates have a much better chance at winning local elections than state and national races. With a smaller electorate, you can get out and meet more voters. If you grew up there, you probably know many of them. In a lot of Appalachian towns, town councils and county boards are aging. As a small-town reporter, I personally have heard calls for younger citizens to step up and run for office. The stage is set. We just need players.

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The idea is intimidating at first. The odds seem insurmountable. But there are a lot of advantages to be had by a young candidate. A lot of older folks, including influential newspaper editors, want to see younger people get involved in politics, if for no other reason than to stir up the pot on older boards. If you are legitimate and can intelligently address local issues, you’ll likely get some backing based solely on your age. And if you can get them out to the polls on election day, you will probably have the support of most 18- to 30-year-olds as well. Growing up in the information age is an advantage too. It gives an edge when it comes to generating new ideas and ways to tackle old problems.

So how to start? First, make sure you really want to do it. Running a campaign will take a lot of time and some money as well. And if you DO get elected, you must be prepared to attend board meetings, talk to your constituents and generally keep up with things. A local here in Western North Carolina, Josh Wilkey, ran as a Republican for county commissioner last year at the age of 21. His first move was to set up an executive committee for support and advice. “The first thing anyone has to do is make sure your friends are on board,” Wilkey says. “Start meeting regularly. Start doing your homework.”

The next step is to go to the local board of elections and find out the requirements to sign up, or file, to run for office. Different states have different rules for filing, and the requirements also will vary based on your political party.

This is probably a good place to talk about parties. On a local level, political parties are largely arbitrary. Affiliation with a party doesn’t necessarily indicate one’s politics. A lot of Southern Democrats would probably fall in as Republicans on a national level. Likewise, more than one liberal businessman has run as a Republican. Third parties also are an option. Brandon Gilland, 27, ran in the same commissioners’ race as Wilkey, but as a Libertarian. “The cons definitely outweighed the pros,” Gilland says, but he adds he’ll continue to run as a Libertarian.

Filing is more difficult for third parties. Usually, party access to the ballot is based on the number of votes garnered last election. Democrats and Republicans are all but guaranteed a slot on ballots because that’s who most people vote for. Third parties, on the other hand, often have to collect signatures on petitions and otherwise jump through legal hoops to get listed. Gilland says he filed very early so he’d have the time to convince the board of elections he was eligible.

Another downside to third parties is voter allegiance. A segment of voters are very loyal to a party and will always vote for candidates from their “team.” That can make it hard for third party candidates to make inroads and garner support. “You’re not going to get the benefit of straight party voters,” Wilkey says. “People look at Republicans and Democrats and generally ignore the rest.”

In spite of that, there are a few pros that go along with third parties. Fewer candidates in your party means, if you can get on the ballot, you have a ticket straight to the final election. Libertarian, Green and other third-party primaries are rare. That gives you more until the final November elections to advance your agenda and issues. Third parties usually contribute more money to local candidates than do Democrats or Republicans. They are still looking to get established, even on a local level. Gilland said the Libertarian party gave him about twice as much money as he requested. Of course, the biggest attraction to running for a third party is the opportunity to set your own agenda, with no preconceived notions as to whether you’re following the party line. “If you run as unaffiliated, you’re not bound by the platform of any party. There are no preconceived notions of who you are and what you stand for,” Wilkey says. “But you have to have a backbone and be very forthcoming. If you’re not a stand-up kind of guy or gal, you might as well not run as unaffiliated.”

You also have to be aggressive. The lack of a primary can actually hurt you. If you don’t jump into the debates then, other candidates will have a head start as far as voter recognition of them and their platforms. One candidate here in Western North Carolina ran as an independent four years ago. Two years ago he shifted to Republican and lost by a hair. This year he stuck with the Republicans and won narrowly.

There are probably two or three issues that really get you fired up. That’s good. Use those issues as the cornerstone for the rest of your platform. Know those couple of key things inside and out. But don’t limit yourself. Try to know at least a little bit about all of the key issues. Education, jobs, economy, tourism, zoning, water and air quality, taxes and more. “The textbook says whenever you do a local campaign, know your general issues,” Wilkey says. “But if you focus on a couple issues, you can say a whole lot. If you can set your tone on a few issues, that’s the basis for a platform.”

Again, the newspaper is an invaluable resource. Read it, know it. See what the current board or council is discussing, what the public thinks about it. Take it a step further. Walk into your community newspaper and introduce yourself to its editor and reporters. It’s a good idea to develop a friendly business relationship with the news staff. They’ll probably be interested in talking to you for your ideas as a candidate. Conversely, they may give you a feel for issues that have people talking.
Reporters talk to a lot of people, and while their perspective may not be totally accurate, it should be considered.

The Campaign
“Local politics is more intimate than state politics. The more local the race, the more personal the campaign has to be,” Wilkey says. “You need to get yourself out and on the streets and work hard. It has to be a grassroots effort. Be out shaking hands and kissing babies. Generally, when you know someone personally, you’re more likely to have faith in them and trust them to represent you.” Beyond that, you must get your name out. It should be familiar to voters so they recognize it when they see it on the ballot.

Signs are a traditional and effective way to visually burn your name into local residents’ minds. Both Wilkey and Gilland say they should have spent more money on signs around the county. One thing to remember, though, is there are often laws about where you can post signs. In some states, you have to pay a fee to put them up. And be conscientious about taking them down when the election is over.

Gilland spent part of his campaign budget in 2002 on radio ads. He says they were surprisingly inexpensive, they reached a large audience and he’ll do it again next time. Wilkey is skeptical. Not only do radio ads not have the impact of a visual advertisement or sign, but they also are spread out over a more diffuse area that may not contain voters in your election. “It’s a waste of money in a local race, unless you’re in a huge county,” Wilkey says.

Find out about spending limits in your county and state. In North Carolina, for example, candidates can spend up to $3000 without filing an itemized expense report. In all, Gilland says he spent about $2500 on his campaign. The bulk of that went to newspaper ads.

At some point in the election, you likely will have to sit down and delineate your ideas and platform, in detail, in the newspaper and/or a public forum. Presentation counts. Take a public speaking class if you need to. Try to make sure your grammar is correct. Reporters quoting a politician will repeat bad grammar because it is important for the public to know how a candidate talks. And in a forum, keep your comments clear and concise. Direct your responses and statements to the audience, not to the moderator. They’re the ones who will or won’t be voting for you. Newspapers and public forums are important for young candidates. It is here you have to convince older voters they should vote for you despite your age. In an aging nation, this is important.

There are several schools on how to approach forums. But one good strategy is to know your platform backwards and forwards and at least a little about the rest of the issues. Make sure you have done your homework. Forum set-ups vary, but expect to get a couple of issue-based questions and then a couple of minutes to speak about what you want. If there are two or three hot issues in the news, you have to know about them and have ideas, if not full-blown solutions. Again, this is where you must demonstrate a difference from the other candidates.

The Hurdle
Lots of older voters will automatically discount you because of your age. Gilland tried to get a position on the county economic development commission prior to his run at commissioner. “They pretty much said I was too young. That happens,” Gilland says. Instead, he was told he could join the juvenile crime prevention council. “It’s the damnedest thing here,” Wilkey says. “People always complain, saying young people are not involved, young people are moving away. But when young people stand up, they’re discouraged. It amazed me the first time I was told, ‘You’re too young and shouldn’t run.’ That same person had told me young people should get involved,” Wilkey says.

That perception is even more intense within the two major parties. “It’s like that even more so whenever you are a party candidate. A lot of times parties have the mindset that people who have paid their dues should be the ones running. Whenever a newcomer comes in, what does that hurt?” Wilkey says. “The double-edged sword is, there is a lot of support if you get your party’s nomination.”

And persistance counts. Even older candidates sometimes run three or four times before they’re successful. It takes a couple of races just for the public to get to know you. Gilland says he’ll run again. He not only saved all the paperwork from the 2002 race, but he also kept precinct voter tallies showing where his support was and was not. “Next time, I think I’ll pick up a few key issues, do more personal contact, spend less money and have more fun,” Gilland says. “The first and foremost thing I would say to anyone running is it’s the most fun seven months of your life,” Wilkey says. “The benefit you gain is wonderful. You come out more networked, more poised and more well-versed. You gain a certain amount of respect just for doing it. People want to come up and discuss issues with you.”

Why wait?