Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Realities of Seeking Elected Office

In a recent post, Connor Boyack admonished people to become politically involved. He noted that just privately disagreeing with the way things are going is insufficient. He suggested that each of us has a moral duty to do what we can within the scope of our capabilities and opportunities to effect positive change.

In recent years I have been asked several times by people in positions of power in my community to consider running for city council. Each time I have demurred. I believe that my capabilities lie elsewhere than in an elected position.

Anyone that even casually peruses the astute political tips regularly posted on the Utah Policy website will realize that running for elected office is serious business. Viable candidates must have drive and passion. They must be able to effectively articulate to voters and potential supporters why they are running for office.

These reasons must be clear and must speak to others in a way that resonates with them. Moreover, these statements must come across as genuine. This is especially true for non-incumbents and incumbents facing tough challengers.

Candidates for office — even for my city’s council — need to put up a fair amount of cash to get their message out to voters. Some can self finance, but most end up soliciting funds from others. It takes a very high degree of self confidence and nerve to go to people you don’t know (or even people you do know) and unabashedly ask them for campaign money while essentially promising them nothing in return other than to be fair-minded.

This is also true when requesting volunteer support. If you want to win, you’re going to need a lot of people to donate their time to your campaign. And, of course, you have to personally put in lots and lots of time. Your family will unavoidably pay a price as well. They may even become a campaign issue.

Your team has to figure out who is most likely to vote and then you have to personally contact as many of these people as possible and ask them to vote for you. Ditto for movers and shakers in the community. You have to ask people to ask their friends to vote for you.

You have to come across as competent. You need the right kinds of social connections. You have to be able to respectfully listen to voters’ concerns and even personal criticisms without seeming like a jerk when you refuse to back down from your own positions. You’ve got to have the ability to understand the current political lay of the land and tailor your message and image to those conditions.

It is also important to weigh the feasibility of being elected. For example, two years ago three of my city’s council seats were up for election. But everyone knew that two of the incumbents were planning to run. A total of 10 people filed and ran in the primary election. In the end, only one of the eight non-incumbents won a seat.

The winner was a friend of mine. In chatting with him about his campaign, he explained that he pretty much counted on the incumbents winning, since neither one had people angry with them. That meant that eight were vying for one spot. He figured that the one of those eight that achieved the greatest name recognition would win, since most voters would have little else on which to base a decision. So he dedicated himself to getting his name out there and he won.

Everything I have mentioned above is just to have a chance at being elected. If you are fortunate enough to win an election, you have to actually do the job. For my city’s council, that means accepting and fulfilling specific assignments, attending the regular meetings, appearing competent during discussions and debates, attending numerous social events, and refraining from angering constituents too much.

Once in office you will find yourself in a new culture where tremendous overt and subvert pressure is applied to get you to function within the cultural norms of the organization. Failure to quickly adopt these customs will cause friction and may very well reduce your chances of being re-elected.

You will be faced with many pieces of business that will challenge your understanding of the principles in which you believe and will befuddle your thinking about how to apply such principles. You may find yourself among those that wonder whether you are principled or just hard headed.

You will be accosted by those that have special interests in various issues. Their approaches, whether abrasive or flattering, will tempt you to believe that their views are somewhat broadly shared by your constituents, when this may not be the case at all. The most noisome of these will tempt you to appease them, regardless of the desires of your broader constituency.

Anything you say or do in both public and private situations will be open for public scrutiny. This will extend to a certain degree to your family members and friends. Even the actions you take in good faith will be questioned by some. You may find untruths and distortions spread about you throughout the community.

These are just some of the harsh realities involved in running for and holding public office. There are real reasons that public office tends to attract a certain type of person. The common admonition about getting out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat applies here. Most people that are intent on doing their civic duty have valid reasons for refusing to consider running for public office. They prefer to fulfill their obligations in other ways.

As for me, I know that those that have asked me to run for city council don’t really comprehend my political leanings. They believe me to be a trustworthy, concerned, and thoughtful person. If they were more aware of my political thinking, they would likely want to keep me as far away from elected office as possible.

Nor do I think that my political stances would be very popular with the general public. People like to talk about liberty, but they tend not to really want the consequences of liberty. They prefer steady control with little rocking of the boat. Often when you try to talk to even intelligent people about liberty, they start looking at you like you’ve got a third arm growing out of your forehead.

Also, I know myself. I am not the type of person that will walk up to someone and ask them to vote for me simply because I want them to. To say nothing of asking people to donate money to a campaign, put up a sign in their yard, or spend their free time working on a campaign. That kind of thing just isn’t in my genes, although, I know people that are naturals at it.

Moreover, I’m not necessarily convinced that I would do a better job at an elected office than anyone I might end up running against. I don’t think I have all of the answers. I’m just a guy trying to muddle my way through the situations life throws at me. I know my own tendency to be a pleaser. Although I can be a stubborn man — just ask my wife — I tend to grow silent or compromise too quickly in social situations. Sometimes I pay too high a price for ‘peace’ and congeniality. Elected office is no place for a person like that.

As Americans, each of us should do our civic duty to implement and defend eternal principles of liberty and justice. To do that, it is important to know ourselves well enough to understand where we can work best in this effort. For some that will be in pursuit of elected office. But as I have noted here, elected office isn’t for everyone.


Connor said...

If they were more aware of my political thinking, they would likely want to keep me as far away from elected office as possible.

Ha! I know what you mean...

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments. I think your ability to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and your lack of desire to run for office probably make you more qualified to run than most people.

We need more politicians that are there for the right reasons rather than for wealth, power, and prestige.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Humility is one of the traits we most need in our political leaders, but it is also a factor that our political system tends to winnow out.