It’s a time of increased political engagement for many, and some people are realizing that if they are concerned about the direction their government is heading, one option is to run for office themselves.
I’ve only done it once as a candidate and I didn’t win the office I was seeking, but I still learned a lot about what it takes to run for local elected office in Richmond, Indiana. So, I’m sharing some of that knowledge in hopes that it will help people who want to make a difference in our community in this particular way.
1. Learn about local government, pick an office to run for
Some people assume that the only local elected office that could really make a difference is that of the Mayor, but it’s not that simple. The interactions between the Mayor’s office (executive branch), the Richmond Common Council (legislative branch), various boards and commissions, and the many other departments and divisions of city government are complicated. There are also significant interdependencies between local government, Wayne County government, and even state-level government. Understanding how all of these work is an important first step in deciding to run for office. You might even find that there are unelected positions (as a volunteer or employee) you could take on to tackle the issues that are important to you.
So, read through state and local codes that dictate the power and responsibilities of these entities. Visit the offices in person. Talk to the people who currently work there and ask them what they do every day. Watch the many hours of government-related programming from WCTV. Read through past media coverage. Attend government meetings yourself.
Once you pick the office you want to run for, study it carefully. Research who has held the position in the past, what kind of work they’ve done, where the biggest opportunities and constraints seem to be, and what current issues are facing that position in today’s political and economic environment.
You should also study the calendar and major milestones of local election cycles. The Indiana Secretary of State usually makes available detailed packets of information for candidates and campaign committees with all of the filing deadlines, reporting deadlines and election dates – here’s the 2016 Candidate Guide. The Wayne County Clerk also typically has helpful information for candidates online, and you should visit their office in person to get familiar with their friendly staff and the forms you’ll need to file.
2. Pick a party to run with
For a lot of people who I talk to about running for office, political party affiliation is the least of their concerns, and sometimes they wish they could avoid it altogether. But the way Indiana politics are structured makes it very, very difficult to be elected into any office without joining forces with an established political party – in our area, that would be the Democrat, Republican or Libertarian parties. And because of weird things like straight party voting, your choice of party can make a big difference in the outcome of your campaign.
If you’re not already affiliated, you should attend events put on by each party, talk with party leadership, and research the issues and values that the party is advancing. It’s also worth asking them what kind of support they would be able to offer you during your campaign, and what would be expected of you as a candidate on their ballot. Try to find the best fit for your own goals, ideals and values as a candidate. But, don’t feel like you have to be 100% in line with the party platform, as most parties tend to welcome some diversity and variety in their approach to politics.
3. Talk to current and past elected officials and candidates
You’ll learn a lot by hearing their stories of deciding to run for office, how they managed their campaigns, what surprised them in the process, what the hardest and best parts where, where their support came from, and what they wish they’d done differently. You don’t have to agree with them or model your own campaign after them, but you’ll gain some valuable perspective along the way.
That said, listen to everyone’s advice but make sure to follow your heart in the end. Many people (myself included) told candidate Dave Snow that he probably couldn’t win an election without yard signs. Dave listened to our concerns but felt strongly that he wanted to avoid printing hundreds of signs. He chose to follow his heart instead of doing things how everyone else had in the past, and now he’s Mayor Dave Snow.
4. Think about money
For better or worse, it takes money to win elections. You will not be able to succeed as a candidate for elected office based solely on your charm, ideas or speeches. Even if you don’t do any marketing or advertising at all (which I don’t recommend, more below), you’ll still need to pay for some filing fees, buy some food for your volunteers, buy admission tickets to some local events, and cover all the miscellaneous expenses that go with running any kind of organized effort.
You should think through how you want to finance your campaign. If you have personal means to self-finance, that’s great. If you want to ask for donations from local residents, decide what kind of mix of small individual contributions and larger sustaining donations you might go after. Consider whether you want to accept money from groups with a political agenda, such as PACs, unions or others, and how you would communicate about accepting that money to anyone who inquires about your independence as a candidate.
Consider asking a trusted friend or volunteer to be your campaign treasurer. There’s some non-trivial bookkeeping involved in tracking and reporting on campaign finances (here’s the 2016 Indiana Campaign Finance Manual), and there is paperwork you have to file on time with election officials, so if you can find someone to manage these details for you, it could be a great help.
5. Think about marketing
Most voters do not go out in search of information about candidates before an election. Instead, they encounter information about candidates through local media, advertising (such as radio, billboards, television and direct mail), events (such as debates, panels, fundraisers and “meet the candidate” gatherings), door to door canvassing, and online social media. To be successful in your campaign you will need to invest in marketing yourself through some combination of all of these different paths to get the attention of voters.
I suggest getting to know more about local media entities and their circulation/readership/listenership. Understand which reporters would be covering your campaign and what kinds of stories they tend to write. Collect their contact information so you know how to disseminate information about your campaign when you want to. Look at what kind of coverage the Palladium-Item and WCTV have produces for past elections, and start thinking about where your campaign can fit in to those stories.
Contact local advertising channels and ask about their rates for political campaigns. Some will even assign a salesperson to help you craft an advertising budget that spans the primary and general elections. If you want prime placement on local billboards, the sooner you get in touch with those companies the better.
And then think through what other kinds of marketing you want to do: will you have a campaign website? What kind of Facebook, Twitter and other social media presence will you have? Will you print brochures, door hangers, or direct mail pieces? Will you record radio spots? Will you host events and rallies, or mostly just attend events that others put on? If you don’t have strong skills in creating/designing/producing advertising, who will you call on to help you?
Through all of this, it will be important to develop a clear message about who you are as a candidate, what issues you care most about in local government, and what people can expect from you if you are elected. You’ll want to find a voice in your campaign communications that is consistent, accessible and authentic to your personality. You can research the other candidates and think about how their messaging might compare to or affect yours, but don’t get caught up in trying to out-do their efforts, and I suggest avoiding negative campaigning altogether. You may come up with a catchy slogan or visual brand, you may not – the most important thing is engaging with people who care about the future of the community so that they have opportunities to learn more about you.
6. Depend on good volunteers
You can’t win a campaign on your own. You WILL need people to help you get the word out about your campaign, advocate on your behalf around the community, and manage the logistics of running for office. From delivering campaign marketing materials to overseeing finances to accompanying you to events, you’ll want good, passionate, energetic people by your side. You can start by asking friends and family, but also don’t be shy about telling coworkers, neighbors and other acquaintances what you’re doing, and how they can help.
At the beginning of your campaign (and possibly again in the fall for the general election), hold volunteer coordination meetings where you lay out your goals for the campaign, what you need help with, and how everyone can participate. Make sure your volunteers understand your key “talking points” as a candidate, so that if anyone asks them why you should be elected, they have an answer at the ready. Listen to their feedback about what is going well and what isn’t. When things are hard, be honest about that and ask for support. And if a volunteer isn’t being helpful or is draining energy from your campaign, ask them to find some other way to support you.
7. Show up and work hard
Running for office is not a hobby or a side gig. Even if the office you’re running for is only part-time or less, succeeding at winning it can be a full-time job. If you’re currently employed, try to coordinate some flexibility with your employer so you can attend important campaign events. Know that much of your free time on evenings and weekends during the heigh of election season (March through May for the primary, August through November for the general election) will be spent attending campaign-related functions. If you accept an invitation to be interviewed by the media, join in a debate or sit on a panel of candidates, make sure you do as much prep work as you can and then show up with lots of energy. Figure out a routine of personal care (food, exercise, rest, etc) that will allow you to be the best version of yourself throughout the campaign.
A lot of people tend to think about running for office as a time when they get to talk about what they want to see in local government. But just as important is taking the time to listen genuinely to the people you encounter during the campaign. Each resident of Richmond has their own hopes, fears, concerns, projects, and ideals about what our community can be. They want to know that the people elected to represent them are keeping their needs in mind, and acting in good faith on behalf of everyone who lives here. Your campaign will only be successful if voters feel like you’re hearing them, and will keep hearing them after you win.
9. Have FUN
So much of the language around campaigns and elections is full of “fighting words” and it’s easy for candidates to get caught up in the stress, conflict and challenges of being a competitor in the public eye. Through all of this, try to remember why you decided to run for office in the first place, what things you want to make better about Richmond, Indiana and beyond, and where your own passions and excitement are. Soak in the experiences of talking to people from all walks of life who care about our future, try to laugh and enjoy the precious time you’ll spend with loyal volunteers, and learn as much as you can about yourself and the political process along the way. Many candidates for office do not succeed on their first try (and if you lose, whether to run again later is a whole other consideration), so make sure you can hold your head high and feel proud of yourself, no matter the outcome.
I hope this guide is helpful. Remember, there is no “standard” profile of who can become an elected official in Richmond, Indiana. YOU might well be the candidate we have been waiting for, and if you feel called to put yourself out there and make Richmond a better place in this way, don’t hesitate to jump in.
I may update this guide with more information and tips as I can. I’d love to hear input from others who have taken the plunge, or who have thought about running in the past but encountered obstacles. You can also read more about my 2011 campaign for Richmond City Council.