5 Things You'll Never Know Unless You Run For Office
Unbelievable as it sounds, five years have passed since I started the series of BlogHer.com posts I wrote about running for City Council in a small Northeast Ohio suburb. I ran, I won, I got more votes than two of three incumbents and I survived a six-month home renovation during the campaign, including three weeks of not living at home and five months of living with four other people (three kids and a husband) based out of one room.
That was 2009, and since then? The mayor who was in office when I came on board has retired, and we brought the average age of the council members down from 69 to about 59, in a city whose average age was 49 in 2010 according to the census. As of last month, seven of the eight elected seats have turned over -- including mine. You read that right: I didn't run to retain my seat... because I'm now running to be the State Representative for Ohio House District 12.
What state of being would a person have to be in to run for the legislature in a state that can't stay out of the news when it comes to the economy, or abortion, or voting rights, or labor issues? And run as a Democrat at a time when that party is outnumbered by a veto-proof majority in the statehouse?
A state of wanting to give voice to a community birthed by redistricting and to apply lessons and successes of being in a municipal government -- including shaking it up a good amount -- to a process woefully in need of some good ole checks and balances.
And so, in early July 2013, with the blessing of my husband of 22 years and my kids, aged 14, 17 and 20, I started to campaign for the State Representative seat for nine suburbs and a well-settled, well-established, very active portion of Cleveland - Ward 1.
Now, the Internet is replete with articles about women and electoral politics - good, bad and ugly. And they're very helpful in sketching out the myriad contexts women encounter when it comes to being in elected, political decision-making roles. But there are more than a few things no boot camp can prepare you for. These are my top five discoveries so far:
1. The need for discipline.
This extends to everything: food intake and getting rest. Door-knocking and call-time for fundraising. Spending time with your kids when you don't have to simultaneously check email, write a thank-you note, or fill out a candidate questionnaire. Sitting with your spouse and talking about something other than your campaign, or the kids (like, maybe, talking about him -- or her).
And beyond that, we are talking mental discipline: the mental discipline to run a great campaign and win -- in the face of insiders telling you how challenging your race is and wishing you luck, but not providing financial support or a filled-out volunteer sign-up card. This is far beyond staying on message or ignoring any and all manners of distraction. This is way past making sure you listen to the people you've put in charge of your operations.
I'm talking about walking into a room of party loyalists who've known your opponent and his family for literally decades -- as in 40 years or more -- and not pulling punches, and not throwing up. I'm talking about concentrating all your brain cells so tightly on getting over each and every hurdle that once you do, you also know that you can barely stop to relax and instead, must and will regroup those brain cells and move on to and conquer the next hurdle.
Over and over and over again until election day. The only two times I recall applying the kind of discipline I'm applying now was when I studied for the bar exam (which I passed on the first go-round), and when I was giving birth to my kids. So far - it's been equally worth it.
2. Being obsessed.
This, too, is about so many things. The words you choose, when you speak and when you write. Determining what information to believe, and what not to believe. Reviewing the budget repeatedly to see where you will have to cut back, and projecting how many more high school friends you might have left who will make $5 donations -- or $500 donations. Determining which precincts to walk first, and which events to go to when you have overlapping engagements. And numbers -- so much of campaigning and winning campaigns are about numbers. Voters to garner, dollars to raise, endorsements to earn, volunteers to sign up, households to hit with lit.
Then there's being obsessed with appearance. Pants or skirt? Red or blue? Can I wear my name badge into this event, but not that event? There are literally hundreds of small decisions -- and every single one of them feels like it matters. This, again, is why discipline is so important, because you need to know when to stop thinking about these things and move on. Time is the only campaign resource you can't replenish, and so you cannot waste it.
3. Make no decisions that cause you to lose sleep.
First of all, sleep is simply too precious. You need energy for everything you do when it comes to campaigning, and you have no spare sleep. Right now, I have less than 12 weeks left before my primary, and then it's basically over -- there is no Republican in the race, and the district is more than 80% Democratic. Whoever wins the primary -- whether incumbent or me -- will very likely be the state rep for the district in 2015.
But beyond this practical advice is the "sound mind and body" aspect: If a decision is causing you to stay up at night, toss and turn, unsure of what to do, you need to make the decision that is going to let you sleep -- even if there are less-than-satisfactory consequences. What do I mean by this? The best way I can explain it comes from my first year on the city council. There were a couple of times when I didn't speak up as I really had intended to. I'd wanted to question something going on; others tried to quell my concerns; I wasn't really satisfied, but I didn't say anything. And I literally could not sleep, knowing that I really should have raised the concerns -- if only to have received a better, more specific explanation of why they were not (or maybe were) relevant. On both occasions, I called the city's law director as early as I could the the next morning to ask about the situation. We came up with something that would be acceptable; I felt satisfied, and was able to move on.
But I never forgot how awful a feeling it was to know that I had had the chance to speak up -- as a council member, in a public meeting -- and that I stayed silent, letting colleagues assuage me, even though I was not really assuaged. Whether as an elected public servant or a candidate to be one, do what you feel you need to do -- and then, get a good night's rest. Chances are, you are going to need it to attend to the next big thing that comes around.
4. Buddy up.
It is so much easier to run for office when you have a friend who is also running for office. It isn't that common to have (or find) a friend running for office exactly when you are -- but to be able to share and commiserate and calculate and plot with someone who totally gets what it is like to be in a campaign is an incredible comfort and joy. I have mentors who have run for office before, and they are role models, but I also have been fortunate to run for office at the same time as several incredible women -- both local and more far-flung -- with whom I can communicate very regularly to find out that I'm not crazy (or if I am, it's okay). Which leads me to my last point, which I have mentioned in other writings, but will say again...
5. Be prepared for how lonely it can be.
You are the candidate. No one else. Doesn't matter how many people you have around you, how many volunteers show up for you, or how much money you have in the bank. It is you going out there and putting yourself out there and promising to be the best public servant your district has ever had -- and you are the only one who can come through on that promise. As much as I embrace the engagement, there are times when being there by myself is glaring. Most of the time, it is empowering, but once in a while, it's like tunnel vision. I always go back to why I'm doing this (to make my home and my home state better for as many of us as possible), and I'm able to keep calm and carry on. But even the most "people person" people are on the ballot alone. And that's a pretty incredible responsibility.
Running for office is a means to an end. For me, the end is representing unrepresented and underrepresented populations, giving voice to a set of communities, and working to repair the world one locality at a time. And hopefully, come May 7, I'll have reached at least this one end -- winning my primary -- and can move on to reaching for some new ones.
Learn more about running for office: