British Columbia has survived its 40th provincial election. If you are going to run for public office in Washington state, you will have to register as a candidate by the end of today. Have you every considered being a candidate? Some people run for public office. Why?
Over the last month I’ve heard folks talk about running in local elections and been talked about as possible candidates, all of the talk testing and probing the level of support they might have in a campaign. Some are running for re-election; others will challenge incumbents or run for open positions; and others will decide not to run.
What does it take to make that decision to run or not to run?
A long time ago I ran against two incumbents on a local electric power cooperative board and lost but garnered enough votes to come in third among four candidates. Another time I won a race to be a Republican precinct committee person— when we still voted in open ballots on party precinct positions. In the first instance, I was running on a platform of staying out of purchasing nuclear power and encouraging energy conservation; the second was an attempt to reform the local Republican party from within and modify its influence on local land use issues.
Energy policy and land use are still pretty contentious issues but after those candidacies, I’ve never had a second thought about being a candidate. My ego — which is large — just took on a different shape. I still want to believe I can influence people and the flow of events; however, I couldn’t see doing it as a salesperson.
A candidate is a salesperson, and it’s not a bad thing to be a good salesperson. A good salesperson identifies (or creates) a need and offers you a way to meet that need. It’s not much different than how job coaches instruct job seekers in pursuing employment: research where you want to work, identify what’s the company needs, and sell your skills and experience that can fulfill those needs.
Bad salespeople consider the sale to be the end of their relationship with their customers; for the customer it’s only the beginning. After you win an election, you have to govern.
When asked recently by a potential candidate about his running, I’d tried to keep it simple: The short answer is yes, do run and run hard. The longer answer entails campaigning hard and smart in a way that brings people together rather than dividing them along the too-familiar urban/rural, city/county issues. It’s not enough to run hard against things like coal port or incumbent leadership; that critical 4-5% vote count that will make the difference needs to be reached with a more positive vision of how your leadership will further economic benefits (it is still jobs, jobs, jobs), increased opportunity for all (justice), responsible growth and development (our quality of life), and balanced and transparent deliberation and decision making (governance). Those are the ‘values’ I value. We’re not electing you, we’re electing the kind of community we want and the kind of leader we want to lead it. And you don’t have to be “nuts” to run— you have to be able to talk in pictures (examples), you have to be able to smile and shake everyone’s hand— and you have to genuinely like people.
Of course, the other part of having the right shape of a big ego to run for office is thickness: the slippery slope to negativity comes pretty quickly when campaigns are contested.
After this week’s BC election, the Globe and Mail headline reads: “NDP loss shows the powerlessness of positive thinking “
Justine Hunter’s story begins : “As the room of shattered New Democrats emptied out of the election night party, Moe Sihota, the NDP president, shook his head in response to the unspoken question: What went wrong? ‘We want to reflect on this,’ he said. But after a minute, he conceded the obvious: Adrian Dix’s insistence on a positive campaign had failed. ‘Positive didn’t work.’”
And when I recently asked a local official who’d lost by a handful of votes what made the difference, we talked about the political baggage one carried having made hard decisions but ended up talking about sticking by a decision to keep the campaign on the issues and not personality and innuendo like the opponent had raised through advertising and anonymous blogs.
My supporters said I should hit back but I didn’t go there, she said.
It’s not naïve to work towards making our political campaigns a reflection of the kinds of communities we want and the kinds of leadership we seek. We’re not powerless. Some of us can decide to be candidates; the rest of us do get to vote.