A common, if not natural, progression of the law student is running for political office. After all, why apply the laws when you can write them? Plus, there’s all the fame and glory…the fan letters and perks…t-shirt canons, and rallies…oh wait, there’s none of that? Running for office is hard work, and it’s often a thankless job. What we’re not talking about here is being in office. That is entirely different.
So here is a brief, cynical “how-to” run for political office:
Pick A Party
Some local offices hold non-partisan elections, but even those seats earn votes from a partisan electorate. And don’t let the “I vote for the candidate, not the party” people tell you otherwise; 60% of “Independents” vote Democrat even if they agree with conservative policies when polled. Pick. A. Party.
Before law school, I was a successful political consultant working with state and local candidates. Which, if you choose to run, is where you’ll start. It’s exceedingly rare that someone’s first foray into being a candidate is national office. And if they do choose to “go big or go home,” they will be going home because politics is the business of people. And coming out of nowhere with zero name ID and no personal connections makes people squeamish about supporting you—especially for something as significant as national office.
Kiss The Ring
Some people have been doing this political thing longer than you have. They are the community organizers, the caucus-goers, the assembly delegates, the partisan group presidents, current and former electeds, and political consultants. Make friends with them. Seek out their advice on what office to run for and when. Timing can make or break a campaign. Be purposeful in what you ask them and don’t waste their time, but you MUST meet the people perpetuating the political process.
Be Kind and Helpful
Running for office is public service. Don’t get swept up in the glamour of candidacy. There are $10,000/plate dinners but far more backyard BBQs and potlucks. Help bring in the chafing dishes, set yourself up at the potato salad, and start serving. You’ll meet people when they come through the buffet line, and you can have a brief chat about how excited you are to be there and eat all this delicious food.
Choose Your “Why” Carefully
For example, “Well, my eldest has a driver’s license, so I don’t have to drive the kids to school anymore, and I thought, why not run for office?” Even if that’s the truth, shut up. Your “why” better center around three things: (1) caring for your community, (2) improving lives, and (3) that you are the solution to a problem.
Get A Political Consultant… or Don’t
Even as a former political consultant, I think most political consultants are a waste of money, especially at a local level. But some have value in acting as your therapist and sounding board when the campaign trail gets tough. Further, they can help you understand how to market yourself to the electorate. This includes making ad buys, sending mailers, field programs, etc. But beware, not all consultants are the same. So don’t be afraid to interview them or ask for proposals.
Build A Donor Base TODAY
Don’t want to be “beholden” to special interests? Great! Then you better have a few rich friends or a metric ton of not rich friends because winning public office requires marketing. And marketing costs money. Imagine you’re competing with the giants of commerce. Pepsi is screaming, “Pepsi!” Coke is screaming, “Coca-Cola,” You’re this little candidate who wants to tell their neighbors there is a city council election in April. You need money for marketing. Money comes from donors. Donor contacts live in a database. It doesn’t need to be a sophisticated database, but keep track of the contact information for your college friends, your parent’s family friends, your neighbors, etc. They may be a future max-out donor to your campaign.
No One Cares
The chances of you being the next AOC or MTG are so slim. Those candidates are anomalies. I’ve seen too many candidates think voters will know them by osmosis. Even 4/4 primary voters (people who vote in every primary election) are clueless about who is running. Get over yourself.
Clean Up Your Social Media
When asked about his son’s bizarre tweets, Will Smith responded, “I used to be stupid when I was a kid, but there was no social media back then; hence, I was stupid in private.” The world is becoming a more forgiving place regarding youthful transgressions—i.e., non-criminal actions of kids—but there’s no need to help your opponent by documenting the ick and cringe of your youth. Scroll through your accounts with the eye of someone who is putting together a mailer to attack you. Be honest and unrelenting in your review of those pictures, those “shower thoughts,” and those news stories you shared without comment. They are all fodder for your opponents. Delete it now before they know to archive the information.
Don’t F*** It Up
It’s the best advice I’ve ever given or received. Sometimes winning an election is about maintaining a baseline. Put your nose to the grindstone and get the work done. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Don’t try to copy another politician’s style. Don’t celebrate too hard on election night and get a DUI. Be authentically you, but the best public servant version of you will do fine.
Cutter’s political proverbs: Being right is not always winning.