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.