Frustrated by the feeling that his community wasn’t represented, Craig Caruana ran for City Council in New York City under the slogan, “Neighborhood First.” He failed to unseat his incumbent opponent, but that didn’t deter his focus on community affairs. Today, as the director of veterans programs at America Works, a for-profit venture that pioneered a “pay for performance” model in social services, Caruana helps lift veterans out of homelessness through employment.
As part of NationSwell’s weeklong focus on local governance, Caruana, a NationSwell Council member, shares how he knew that local office was a position worth pursuing.
How do you know you’re the right person to run for local office?
I remember people coming up to me and saying that I should run for City Council. That’s a really powerful thing that can go to your head quickly. If that happens enough and you can look at yourself objectively and say, “There’s a real widespread concern. Can I do this? Can I do it successfully?” then you should go ahead. But if you’re just someone who’s watching TV and getting angry and you say, “I’m going to run for office,” that might not be the best path. There’s got to be more to it than that.
A candidate should reflect the population’s wishes. A candidate can’t impose his will on people or explain why they’re is wrong. If you’re considering running for office, you should be asking, “What are people saying needs to happen, but isn’t?” That’s a really difficult question to answer. It’s one thing if someone in your neighborhood is saying something, but on the other side of the community, they’re saying something different. You want to make sure that it is a concern that’s large enough to warrant you running for office.
Some say that you shouldn’t run for office if you haven’t been part of the fabric of your community. How did you first get involved in community organizations?
Civic organizations are the basis of the democratic process. They’re organized, they’re not political, and they’re looking after your community. If you want to get involved and make your neighborhood better, joining one is the best way to do it. If you’re someone who wants to get involved or looking to volunteer, join your local Kiwanis club, which I was a member of. I was also a member of the Juniper Park Civic Organization, whose main mission was keeping the park clean and enforcing park rules.
What was cause for worry when you ran for local office?
There’s a ton to worry about when you run. You have to know the logistics of how to run. One of the main reasons why people don’t win their election is because they never get on the ballot. Understanding the political process is very, very important. You have to know how you’re going to get on the ballot, who can be a support network and help you run a successful campaign, how much money you’re going to need and how you’re going to raise it, and campaign finance laws. You also have to understand that there’s a lot you can’t control. There’s going to be a lot of noise going on around you, and you have to make sure you don’t get distracted by it.
Why was that not enough to dissuade you from running?
Most of us who run for office really are in it for the right reasons. You have to be a true believer — in yourself and in the message you’re selling. You have to believe that if you get elected, you’re going to make a difference and the difference is going to be so great that you have to be in the elected position and not your opponent.
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