Whether inspired or angered by the recent presidential election, people who never before considered running for mayor, their town’s council or the local school board are putting their names on the ballot for the first time.
Thinking about running yourself? NationSwell recently spoke with several candidates to learn more about the process.
1. Mentors are really, really important.
Running for office is particularly daunting for first-time candidates. One mistake can sink your candidacy before you ever get your name on the ballot. “There are forms you have to fill out by particular dates. There are signatures that have to be collected and mailed in and postmarked by a certain date,” says Emily Peterson, a candidate for town council in Parsippany, N.J.
Lean on others who know what they’re doing — former candidates, your local political party, campaign managers or others familiar with the process. “People jump in and work as hard as you [do] to get you elected, even if they just met you a week earlier,” says Chance Mullen, a candidate for the village board of trustees in Pelham, N.Y.
2. Money makes the political world go ’round.
A record breaking $7 billion was spent on the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. While you need significantly less to run for local office, raising money is essential. New Politics founder Emily Cherniack says that candidates vying for a position on town council or school board will need anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000, excluding races in California and Texas. In those states, local politics is big business, and candidates might need considerably more (think: $1 million or even more).
“Your ability to fundraise is a catalyst for many organizations supporting you and endorsing you,” says Pierre Gooding, a democrat running for city council in Harlem, N.Y. “How much money you have in your coffers drives how much money you can get from organizations moving forward — it’s very important to show financial viability.”
You’ll also want to hire a treasurer to manage your campaign’s finances and determine budgets. Doing so could cost you a couple hundred dollars a month, but it will free up valuable time and keep you from blowing your entire budget on campaign buttons and yard signs. A candidate should exert her energy talking to constituents at meet-and-greets, not on opening a bank account, obtaining an EIN number or navigating state campaign-finance laws.
3. Reach out and text someone.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are all low-cost platforms you can use to engage and educate your constituency. Use your personal accounts as a springboard to launch your campaign page.
Go beyond traditional posting, though, and think about how you can leverage technology to boost your campaign. Los Angeles school board candidate Nick Melvoin is using Venmo to collect small dollar contributions from like-minded millennials; in New Jersey, Peterson is doing the same via GoFundMe and is drawing donations from people who live outside her town.
4. Walk the walk. And talk the talk.
We may live in a tech-driven world, but all the candidates NationSwell interviewed say that old-school campaigning methods are still effective: hold meetings, engage in conversations with community members, go door-to-door, have meetups at local cafes.
When out on the trail, don’t let complaints, chitchat or stories “about the way things used to be” dominate the conversation. “Listen to their concerns, but be able to talk to them so they can get a better feel of where you’re going with your position and what you want to see accomplished,” says Forty Fort, Penn., borough council candidate Amy Craig, a republican.
5. Rehearse, but be prepared to go off script.
Practice what you want to say. Make sure your ideas translate clearly into goals. “Constituents are looking for a leader and looking for a voice, so be that voice,” says Gooding.
At the same time, however, be flexible and able to articulate why you’re taking a given position. “Your own thinking is most likely going to be the most persuasive,” explains Mullen.
6. Rise above.
In local elections, it’s particularly important to maintain a sense of respect at all times. (After all, your next-door neighbor might be your opponent.) “We’re all benefiting from the same community services,” says Peterson. “Trash collection, policing and the crosswalk being painted…that is the stuff that shouldn’t be partisan.”
The best way to remain above the fray? Keep your rhetoric community-centric and have town pride in mind at all times.