Guest Post: Why You Should Run For (Local) Office, by Adrienne Martini
Posted on December 1, 2020 Posted by John Scalzi 13 Comments
Hey, did you know we had an election last month? Seems so long ago now, I know, but it’s true! And in the wake of the national, state and local elections — and the attendant hoofraw about the results — we here in the US have been getting a bit of a refresher in what it means to run for office and to be part of the political process. Author Adrienne Martini knows just a little about this: she ran for local office, and then chronicled the experience in her 2020 memoir Somebody’s Gotta Do It. Now she’s here to talk a little bit about that experience, and why it’s something you might consider thinking about as well.
If nothing else, we can be thankful that the last four years provided a crash course in civics. From 2016 until now, we’ve struggled to understand the difference between a law and a norm and how gray the area in-between can be. For the first time in a very long time, the emoluments clause in the Constitution’s first article was a thing people cared about. To say nothing about our discourse into the President’s pardon power.
(We’ve also learned a fair bit about which of our coping strategies will cause long-term damage but that is a discussion for another day.)
But this post — thanks to John and Athena for letting me hijack Whatever — isn’t about national politics. No matter how you feel about how 2020 turned out, the next chance you’ll have to change the federal government won’t happen for two years. In 2022, our entire country will vote on its house rep and one-third of the country will choose a senator. The presidency won’t be up for grabs again until 2024. Two years is forever from now. Four years is so far out on the time horizon as to be meaningless.
Which is fine, really, because these aren’t the elected positions that have the most impact on your daily life. Really. While a national office is great for influencing policy in broad strokes and between nations, it is the wrong instrument for local details. State, county, municipality, township, and/or parish offices are where the rubber meets the road and ensures that the road is plowed and resurfaced. Many of those offices will be up for grabs in November 2021.
You — yes, you — should consider running for one of them. Or supporting someone who is running for one of them. Or, at the very, very (very) least, paying enough attention to this election to choose a candidate to vote for.
Without getting too far into the weeds, local government ensures that the things that make quasi-civilized life possible function. Do you like having your green spaces green and your watersheds blue? Are you a fan of not letting the elderly and infirm starve or freeze? Do you think that there are problems with your community’s policing? How do you feel about potholes and emergency services? Are you concerned about how those who aren’t straight, white, and cis-gendered are treated? And, most important right now: are you happy with how your locality has handled COVID and mask mandates and distance learning?
The framework for how every single one of these issues in your community is controlled by local boards, assemblies, and councils. Nearly all of them have elected members, which gives you an opportunity to make real changes if you think they are doing it wrong. I can promise you that your service will make a difference in the place where you live and to the people you know.
That’s a promise I can make because I hold a seat on the Otsego (NY) County Board of Representatives — and my butt has been in it for more than three years now. And, just as a point of fact, my opponent from that race still hasn’t conceded. It’s not a requirement for the transfer of power, no matter what you might be led to believe.
The idea of me running for public office is one that I would have laughed at five years ago. It never dawned on me that a) local office is important and b) anyone can and should run for one. My resume as a newspaper reporter turned freelance writer turned teacher turned magazine editor does not scream political animal. My biggest relevant experience is that I give a damn about other people and am willing to figure problems out. This is a feature and not a bug. Our system needs fewer politicians and more everyday citizens in it.
For me, the presidential election of 2016 starkly illustrated how divorced so many of us had become from the political process. It also showed me that democracy doesn’t just happen, nor is it inevitable. There is always work to be done in the communities where we live.
I wrote all about campaigning, fundraising, and governing in Somebody’s Gotta Do It: Why Cursing at the News Won’t Save the Nation, but Your Name on a Local Ballot Can. While I have zero qualms about a moment of self-promotion — you should read my book for the 8,000 words on coroners, if nothing else — my goal goes beyond shifting units. The national offices consume all of our attention but aren’t where the action is. This coming year is the time to look homeward and make real, sustainable progress. For just about any issue a person could care about, there is a local office in charge of it.
The most effective way to make your voice heard is to make sure your butt (or the butt of someone you support) is in that chair after November 2021. The country needs a wide variety of people in power to ensure that the diversity of experiences can be represented, rather than defaulting to the things that worry the same old white dudes.
If I can do it, you can, too. And I promise it will be worth it.
For more information about which local offices will be up in 2021 in your community, check out https://www.wherecanirun.org/. This site is run by an organization called Run for Something, who is dedicated to filling local offices with progressive candidates. You may or may not agree with their stand but the tool is incredibly useful. You can also contact your local (usually but not always county-based) party office for more information.
Adrienne Martini is a writer and editor. She also represents District 12 of Otsego County, New York. Her most recent book Somebody’s Gotta Do It is both a how-to and a why-you-should run for local office.
Are there any useful resources for juggling holding local elected office and working a full-time lower-level job (i.e. retail, help desk, etc.). I’ve considered running for city council on occasion, and what’s scared me off is concerns over not being able to give the job the attention it deserves while also dealing with my day job (and not getting burned out by both).
Well, that and concerns about a conflict of interest due to working for an employer in a city where I also hold elected office.
And if the answers to these questions are in the book, then that’s good to know.
In 2018, I stood for a seat on the board of our local fire board (an unpaid office). I’d been asked to run by the retiring chair of the board (he was moving away) and the fire chief, due to my obvious interest in the fire department’s affairs. (I often was the only “civilian” at fire board meetings.) Unfortunately, I came in last in the election (seven candidates for two seats). The town in which I live appears to be full of people who think All Guv’mint is Evil and accordingly they elect people who don’t believe in government to government seats. The local Democratic party doesn’t even bother putting up candidates for most county and state races, so (for example) for state assembly I get the choice between a Republican and the party that thinks that Republicans are Commie Pinko Liberal Traitors Who Are Too Soft.
Kudos for putting your time/effort/money where your mouth is. I look forward to reading your book!
And as an aside, going to a board or city council meeting and asking questions is a great way to get started. While I’m sure there are plenty of bad/unthinking apples in public office, I’m equally sure that there are plenty of people who could make a difference with the right help, and finding out who’s who is a good way to start.
Back when I had a condo (think 1980s) I ran for the HOA board and got elected based on both my impeccable skillset (I could spell my name), and nobody else wanted to do it. 2 years in the rest of us on the board realized the president was a self-interested douchbag and, well, I ended up being president of our HOA for 13 years, until I sold my condo and moved.
What an eye opener. First, if you are in an HOA then you really need to follow what the board does, if not be on the board itself. They can royally screw you financially. Not so much in the short term, but the long term. Like, if you need to re-roof the joint every 30 years then you need to guesstimate how much that will cost, and ensure the monthly HOA dues included 1/360 (30 years * 12 months) of the re-roofing fee. Add also parking lot resurfacing, mailbox replacement, painting the buildings, plumbing, etc. There are legal terms for these that I’ve long forgotten, “reserves” seems to want more attention at the moment than “my beer is empty”.
Stupid stuff when I was prez:
A) This was the birth of personal satellite dishes (DishTV, etc). Everybody and their mother wanted to put a dish on the roof (did I mention these were converted apartments? Yeah, don’t buy one of those). We worried about that and got the bright idea of putting mounting spaces on the roof, so Joe Bloe could just use a couple C clamps on a pipe instead of screws in our expensive roof. Our lawyer nixed that, something about liability I don’t remember.
B) Our condo complex was at the top of a hill, below were 2 big streets. People used to go up and down a pretty steep hill to get to those 2 streets (I was one of them, there was a liquor store, bar, a Taco Bell, and a trolley station down there). It was a bitch in the best of times, when it rained, yeah, fun times. I proposed making a path. Got shot down by the lawyer. As it was if someone slipped and broke something we weren’t responsible. If we made a path, we are responsible.
C) Part of one building of our complex was sliding down a hill, it was literally splitting into 2. This actually started before I became prez and when I became prez it was the first I’d heard of it. Anywhoo, we had insurance company A when the problem started, and B, when the problem was discovered. Looking at about $700k for a 52 unit complex. But we had insurance, so no problem, right?
Yeah, A said B was responsible, B said A was responsible. 10 years in we got a settlement for about 2/3 the cost of the cheapest fix available. We settled for it cuz, well, remember part of a building was slowly sliding downhill?
My first experience with a lawyer. This building sliding down a hill thing, I’m like 2 months into HOA prez. Talked to the lawyer on the phone, got the background and everything I needed to know, then he started talking about kids, wives, life experiences, and whatnot. A 30 minute phone call turned into 2 hours. Then we got the bill, he charged $200/hour for that chit chat. Trust me, every time I talked to him after that it was very short and to the point.
Move on to 1996, I bought a house. Looked into running for government, turns out instead of representing 52 folks I was over a million, and people were willing to spend a ton of money to get a job that paid half what I was making.
The point? This is the kind of stupid crap you will deal with daily if you get involved in government. You will have the occasional important thing (building sliding down a hill), and a ton of stupid stuff (can’t make a path safer because reasons). Oh yeah, if you’re in an HOA and you aren’t on the board, You Are An Idiot.
Yes, 100%, pay attention to local politics. We have a group of Bright Bulbs who have decided to petition to recall the entire city council, and the mayor, because they imposed a mask mandate (even though it is specifically not something that people get arrested or fined if they break it) and did things like, gasp, limiting capacities at bars and restaurants. The city is reviewing the signatures now (because only people within city limits count), and if they did get enough signatures, then we get an election in a month or two to decide whether to vote them out (at which point, it is actually a bit unclear what would happen, because there is not exactly a backup city council?) or whether there are enough people with enough sanity who are paying attention enough to vote to retain them. (if they do have the recall election, I will be contacting people in town to tell them to pay attention to this one and vote! I mean: our hospital is swamped with COVID as it is; I can’t imagine how many additional people would have died if no additional measures had been taken. Actually: I can imagine it, and it looks like our surrounding counties…)
Seconded. I was a village councilman for 9 years (1 year appointment, won 2 elections, I didn’t stand for the 3rd election as we were reducing the council number to hire of village manager). Local governments are where it all hits the pavement. And for most of our meetings there were no public in the audience. Local governments need support, and with local news dying out, they need to be watched and held accountable. There are usually committees looking for volunteers if you don’t want to go through an election. And getting on the ballot is ridiculously easy. For me it was a $25 filing fee and I had to get 12 registered voters to sign my petition. But it’s important to show up. It can be incredibly boring, frustrating, and confusing (especially budgeting and appropriations), but it is worth while. And again, there are many positions and the need for volunteers.
I’ve been telling people to run for local office for a long time now.
Brookline, MA Town Meeting Member since 2001.
Brookline Library Trustee since 2004.
I didn’t get involved in politiccs at all until I retired. I thought I was too old to be a first time candidate, so I looked for people to support for local office. I found several good young candidates for the Burien, WA City Council (just south of Seattle) and canvassed for them in 2019. All four of our candidates, including one relatively progressive incumbent, won. Two of the candidates were Latino–a first for the city council, and about time considering that the local school district has a student body that is 40% Latinx. The key was very extensive canvassing, plus making sure that people who were recent citizens got registered to vote. I made an effort to ask people what they wanted from the city council. I opened with “If there were one issue that would convince you to go to the city council meetings on Monday night, what would that issue be?” I wrote down everything I heard, and insisted that the candidates review the notes. I ran into more than a few people who didn’t even know that they lived in an incorporated city. I had voter registration forms available to hand out.
Because I’m older and in more than one COVID risk group, I didn’t do my usual canvassing and voter registration this year. When you do local campaigning, you should go deep into what people expect from people who hold the office. I am occasionally asked by xwnophobic types whether I have ever registered someone here illegally. The answer to that is “Are you effing kidding me? The last thing that they want is to be on a list in some government computer.” In my own precict there are two houses that expect have been rented to people here illegally. The reason for my suspicion is that when I attempted to do voter registration, I got the same answwer both places. “We don’t live here–we’re just cleaning it for them.”
I didn’t get involved in politics at all until I retired. I thought I was too old to be a first time candidate, so I looked for people to support for local office. I found several good young candidates for the Burien, WA City Council (just south of Seattle) and canvassed for them in 2019. All four of our candidates, including one relatively progressive incumbent, won. Two of the candidates were Latino–a first for the city council, and about time considering that the local school district has a student body that is 40% Latinx. The key was very extensive canvassing, plus making sure that people who were recent citizens got registered to vote. I made an effort to ask people what they wanted from the city council. I opened with “If there were one issue that would convince you to go to the city council meetings on Monday night, what would that issue be?” I wrote down everything I heard, and insisted that the candidates review the notes. I ran into more than a few people who didn’t even know that they lived in an incorporated city. I had voter registration forms available to hand out.
Because I’m older and in more than one COVID risk group, I didn’t do my usual canvassing and voter registration this year. When you do local campaigning, you should go deep into what people expect from people who hold the office. I am occasionally asked by xenophobic types whether I have ever registered someone here illegally. The answer to that is “Are you kidding me? The last thing that they want is to be on a list in some government computer.” In my own precinct there are two houses that expect have been rented to people here illegally. The reason for my suspicion is that when I attempted to do voter registration, I got the same answer both places. “We don’t live here–we’re just cleaning it for them.”
I ran for Congress a couple of times in the early 90s; third-party candidates get the nomination by saying “ok, I guess I’ll do it”, and in New Jersey it took 100 signatures to get on the ballot in a district race or 1000 for statewide, so that’s a couple mornings petitioning at the train station where commuters are in a convenient line and will usually talk to you because they’re bored, until a train shows up of course. Learned a lot about the news business doing that.
If I wanted to do something really scary I’d volunteer for some city planning board (some of them you have to run for, but you get the experience to do that by volunteering.) Maybe after I retire.
I’m the mayor of a small town (pop. 1,600) in the Interior of British Columbia, and while there are a number of differences between how local politics (and politics in general) works here and in the States, a lot of it is similar.
Yes, local government is where the rubber hits the road. Municipal services impact more people on a daily basis than federal or provincial (or state) services do, yet local government elections have the lowest voter turnout. The popular saying here is to the effect that if the federal government shut down – completely – tomorrow, most people wouldn’t see a direct impact on their own life for about a month; if the provincial government did the same, you’d feel it in a couple of weeks. If your local government shut down, you’d see it immediately. No water or sewer, no garbage pick-up, no response to emergencies like a burst water line, streetlights wouldn’t be fixed, etc.
In Canada we have what’s called a ‘weak mayor’ system, so the crusading/maverick/rogue mayor isn’t really a thing (you can try, and some do, but there are five people on our council and my vote weighs no more or less than anyone else’s; I don’t cast a deciding vote if there’s a tie, for example). We also don’t register voters or appoint anyone, and unless I declare a state of local emergency I have no sweeping extraordinary powers.
But running at a local level is incredibly important for so many reasons. Apart from Vancouver, where most people run as part of a slate, local politicians here have no party affiliation at a local level; you run as an independent citizen who (it’s to be hoped) has ideas about your community and how to make it a better place. Because your fellow council members are in the same position, you get a diversity of opinions and ideas, which is a good thing when it comes to finding consensus on issues and acting in the overall public good. Because no one is bound by party ideology, we’re all free to say our minds.
It promotes diversity, in lots of different ways. Because local government (in a town of my size) doesn’t pay a lot – certainly not enough to quit your day job if you have one – it tends to attract a lot of retired people, which is fine, but it’s nice to get younger people as well, as their concerns and perspectives are different. We have no trouble getting women to run for councillor and get elected; mayor is a bit trickier (I’m the first female mayor in my town, which was established in 1885 but not incorporated until 1952; I was elected mayor in 2018 after four years as a councillor, so it only took us 68 years).
When it comes to that day job: it doesn’t pay a lot because it’s not a full-time job, but trying to balance being on council (especially as mayor) with a job can be tough, unless your employer is really, really understanding about you needing to take time off. Our council meetings are in the evening, but lots of other meetings take place in the daytime, from meetings with other levels of government to special meetings to planning sessions, etc.. I’m self-employed, so I can manage it, but it is something you have to think about.
If you want to run for local elected office, showing up at a couple of public meetings before you run is the very least you should be doing, to get a handle on what the issues are in your community and what’s being done (or not) about them. Go online and read over the minutes of past meetings. Talk to a current or (recent) past council member to find out what the workload is like. Get a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order and your municipality’s guidelines about how meetings and council business run (here it’s the Procedures Bylaw). Get the document that outlines how local governments run and what everyone’s roles and responsibilities are (here it’s the Community Charter and Local Government Act), and pay particular attention to who does what (I’ve seen too many people get elected who think their job is to manage staff, prepare budgets, oversee projects, supervise the village crew, etc. Wrong.). Learn the difference between government (what the public sees) and governance (actually governing). Learn why government can’t be run like a business. It can be business-like, but if local government ran like a business, our pool, arena, curling rink, fire department, community hall, and parks would shut down tomorrow, as an analysis would show that they don’t make money. Our outdoor, seasonal pool (open May through Labour Day) operates at a good-sized loss (show me a pool anywhere that doesn’t, and I’ll show you my pet unicorn). However, try shutting down the pool in a community that on any given day in spring and summer is the hottest spot in Canada. Does it lose money? Yes. Does the benefit to the community outweigh that loss and can we afford it? Also yes.The pool stays open.
In a small town, be prepared for people to stop you in the street, at the grocery store or post office or bank or pharmacy, to ask you questions or complain about something. Learn how to listen, have empathy, do your homework on issues, be prepared to make decisions that will leave some people very upset (having first done your homework and asked yourself ‘Am I making the best decision for my community as a whole?’), and be prepared to admit, fully and frankly, when you were wrong.
Is it a tough job? It certainly is. But I have learned a lot (about a lot of different things), met some amazing people, and seen some real, concrete, lasting good come of decisions I have had a hand in making for and about the place I’ve lived for nearly 25 years.
I’ll have to check this out. I’m running for my local city council; just received the nomination papers to hand out yesterday.
I have monitored a lot of conservative religious broadcasters for about thirty years and in the late 80s they were beginning to promote that the local offices were ‘the most important in the world” and promoted running for local school boards, ect. as a way to change things. That is why we have anti-science being legislated at the local level which has led to the inability to shut down falsehoods on COVID-19, masks and so on. I remember the first year i was eligible to vote (1978) there was only one candidate running for one local office and that wasn’t even in my district!