Dedicated Democratic volunteer and Indivisible organizer Lauren Whitehead shares lessons learned from her convincing victory in last week's special election for the city council in Solon (Johnson County). -promoted by desmoinesdem
Since my city council win, I’ve had requests for advice from people considering a run for local office. School board and city races are fast approaching: now is the time to make a decision and put your plan into action. My wing woman, Sue, helped draft this.
If you are starting today, do this now:
- Find, print, and map out a timeline to paperwork deadlines, including both candidacy affadavit and campaign finance paperwork. Read it, understand it, and start ASAP so you don’t have to stress about this in the middle of active campaigning (filing deadlines are surprisingly close to election day).
- Find a person to keep track of things--a point person so that you don’t end up with “too many cooks” asking you a million questions when you are also in the time-intensive work of active campaigning. It’s a lot like planning your wedding: everyone wants to know what YOU think and YOU want to do and mostly you want to run away and scream. My point person was/is Sue, a neighbor, friend, activist, and former councilor who kept my head on straight. Everyone needs a Sue.
- Identify mentors of some kind who have served at the local level, especially in your own town or another comparably sized town/district/whatever. Don’t be afraid to “cold call” via Facebook or at a meeting of some kind. If you aren’t running but have some elected experience, offer yourself up to whoever is considering running.
Here are some initial takeaways from my campaign experience.
Get nerdy with campaign guidelines, the recent past of your office/organization, and municipal policy!
Being a candidate is very different from being an activist. I made a few mistakes--easily corrected, but it was definitely an exercise in boundaries. What limits are there in terms of sign placement or candidate involvement in GOTV? You don’t have to have it memorized, but bookmark those pages in the code for state/city and any other websites that can be quick reference.
In general, I strongly recommend reading the city code and/or whatever handbook or guidelines exist for the organization you seek to join, and find the most recent budgets. It’s fun. Read the minutes for board meetings and archives of your local-est newspaper (and subscribe to that paper). Separate out the issues you care about from those you would be able to act on in your role. Find the overlap between the two and focus on those (and they do exist--any environmentalist should be thrilled at the opportunity to improve stormwater management, for example). Coffee with a current board member can make this happen more quickly--take notes!
Map your calendar now so that you have flexibility.
I had already planned to run in the regular fall election for one of the three seats set to expire this year when this special election popped up. I had five weeks to do a full campaign. I do not recommend it! If you are planning a fall run, start your countdown to election day TODAY. It will easier to consistently campaign over a longer period of time than cramming it all into one month, and allows your name to percolate through the community.
- First and foremost, get your filing deadlines down and your paperwork started!
- What events are coming up in town? Farmer’s Market is a great place to meet people, or movie in the park. Put those in the calendar. Take pictures every time you do this and post them to your social media account(s) talking about who you met and what you discussed.
- Identify vacations/events when you will be unavailable to campaign. Mark down dates or events that mean no one will be home (football games, long weekends).
- Get early voting dates, absentee ballot request forms and dates, and anything else important from your auditor. Absentees require tracking down but can make all the difference. Candidates can’t collect/turn in absentees, so you need to have your point person make sure these things get done.
- Set a door knocking time goal per week--even 3 hours a week is better than zero. I found door knocking profoundly important but draining. I did a few blocks after dinner several times a week rather than weekend marathons. Take pictures and post to your social media account(s) talking about who you met and what you discussed. Dogs, flowers, pretty skies all make good posts. Give a shout-out to that area (or elementary school or whatever). “Check out this sunset over Evergreen Terrace! Had a few conversations about middle school traffic. Great neighborhood!”
- The week(s) just before the election will be focused on GOTV--collecting absentee ballots, informing people about dates, hassling them to make their plan to vote. At this point you are past the “getting to know you” stage and into the “hammer the message home” stage, so keep that in mind. (This is no different from how things work in a General or State-level campaign.)
- You’re going to have really down days. You may be able to be to campaign intensely for a weekend and then crash and not be able to face it for two days. I found it INCREDIBLY hard to relax during the campaign. You might get sick. You may need to just spend a weekend cleaning because your house is a disaster. More time allows you to have those breaks and return refreshed. Do not underestimate the need to pace yourself and take care of yourself. Build in cushion for these factors.
Find out exactly who can vote for you and start talking to and meeting them.
You can live somewhere but not KNOW that place. Draw out the boundaries of your “turf.” What neighborhoods are there? What are the boundaries of different elementary schools? Who can actually vote for you? In Solon a significant portion of Solon addresses are outside of town limits and therefore with the county and not city. They’re awesome but they can’t vote for me.
Name recognition in small elections is incredibly important; local people won’t vote for a name they’ve never heard before. The earlier you can get out and say your name to them and get your name in their faces--through flyers, signs, an article in the local paper--the better off you’ll be approaching election day. Find the folks in town who know the other folks and meet them. Find the local active Dems and get them to talk about you to everyone. The more people you can talk to face-to-face the better off you’ll be (and the better a candidate you will be in terms of articulating how you will attend to their concerns). Call your auditor and see what kinds of information you can get for free so you can target your effort on likely voters. You won’t be able to get to everyone; this helps prioritize.
Be ready to be very open: I shared my address, my email, and my phone number (some people don’t do Facebook and older folks don’t always do email). This made a big and positive impression. Always return emails and calls. Note: I created a separate email account specifically for campaign/city biz and have it in my signature that it is for those uses only. This is, until I get a gov’t issue email (if available), the best way I can think of to avoid a “BUT HER EMAILZ” scenario. Public accountability and transparency goes hand in hand with hard thinking about personal privacy.
I know it seems nuts to have a “campaign manager” but you need one person who, at the very least, keeps track of what you’ve done, what you’re doing, deadlines, and upcoming stuff. If you can find one person willing to do that grunt work making follow up calls, keeping a checklist, helping you prioritize, that frees up your time and brain for actual campaigning. The party should help connect dots between a candidate and someone willing to do this. If you want to help in some way, volunteer to do this. Someone who doesn’t work or has down time during working hours can be really advantageous, but work with what you’ve got. Take some of the pressure off of yourself to do all the things--candidates have plenty to do.
You gotta do it. A huge part of your demographic will be online. For me this helped get out the word to working parents, middle aged ladies, and their friends/family/neighbors--people who ended up turning out big time in my favor. There are a lot of good tutorials on effective social media strategy--follow the basics and make sure you understand how to get followers and make sure that people are seeing your posts. In my opinion, pick the platform with the most potential reach in your community. Facebook was my primary social media platform. Create a PAGE and be mindful of “friending” voters on your personal account. Post pics and be positive. Encourage people to like and share to boost visibility. Use Facebook ads to boost posts--they’re affordable and can be targeted really effectively.
Don’t feed the trolls. Be firm but respectful with locals who may argue with you online. Stay positive and assertive without being glib or dickish.
Find or take a photo of yourself that is duck-face free. Papers will ask you to send it. You’ll get calls from reporters; don’t panic, and ask someone you know who has been elected for advice. Papers tend to ask similar questions but will fit your quotes in however they want. Once you’ve said words, set them free.
Paper flyers or postcards are perfectly fine. I had an introductory 1-pager that I passed out during door knocking. The weekend before the election we did half-sheet GOTV reminders on cardstock and delivered to every house in several neighborhoods.
Finally, yard signs. People will tell you that signs don’t really change anything etc etc but I really think yard signs make a difference in a small or local election. If everyone knows everyone, sign placement can make a big impression, and again--name recognition matters. Signs are pricy and take a long time to make--order early and make them as reusable as possible (Rockstar Smith for City Council) so you can collect and reuse next time. Big and easy to read.
Don’t Be Afraid to Raise Some Money
A local election is doable with a modest fund. Small donors are eager to support local candidates right now. Take advantage of it. Make sure you learn your campaign finance laws, especially the threshold at which you have to do all the paperwork and disclosures. I aimed to earn 1k (the limit here before filing official campaign pwork) and went above that (which is fine because I will run again in November--but it means doing the right paperwork!) and used GoFundMe. Signs are pricy; newspaper ads can be expensive to run repeatedly. Flyers and Facebook ads are a lot cheaper than you might expect. Social media is basically free, and so is door knocking. Don’t go broke campaigning.
A lot of this depends on context. I was careful to avoid making promises about specific outcomes but instead focused on how I would act and make decisions as a councilor. My three pledges, which I used in ads and boosted posts, were: (a) outreach and access, being available and eager to listen (b) committing my time and energy to my work for the town (c) donating my councillor salary to a local community fund. I connected voter concerns to these pledges as much as possible. I don’t know exactly how or when we can make infrastructure improvement happen faster, but I will find out, I will talk to you about it, I will advocate for it, and I will always make clear my decision-making process. That I can promise.
I didn’t openly push my party activism, but I didn’t hide it. I pointed to my campaign work and roles as evidence of my commitment to public service (which they are). City council is a non-partisan org, so party affiliation wasn’t front and center.
The Solon special election also coincided with a shared community sense that our council had too many appointments due to numerous resignations and that the town needed someone new on board. The timing was right. This definitely put wind in my sails. I know that Trump and Johnson supporters backed me because I was a new candidate willing to listen and work hard, and that’s what they wanted. In a different context, your mileage may vary. This is something we should all think on.
Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself
Last month I had to write on a post-it: YOU ARE NOT HILLARY CLINTON (OR LESLIE KNOPE) AND THAT IS OK. I couldn’t do all the things I wanted to do. I missed some opportunities. I was more tired than I expected. But sky-high campaign standards are unrealistic and unnecessary for a smaller scale campaign. Also, you will be scared. It’s scary. Have a good friend(s) to talk to when you need to say, “This is scary.”
Remember that anything you do is valuable and that it has a cumulative impact. A robust losing campaign is community- and party-building. A robust losing campaign is prep for a robust winning campaign. Since I’ll be running again in five months, I viewed this special election as a “primary” regardless of outcome. I laid a lot of important groundwork for myself and for folks who want to run in the next year or two. All of that is valuable.
Top image: Lauren Whitehead celebrates after winning the Solon City Council special election on May 31, 2017.