Run for Something 1 WHY YOU HAVE TO RUN FOR OFFICE
No one asked Donald Trump to run for president.
(Putin might have asked Donald Trump to run for president.)
Why would they? He wasn’t qualified. He had a résumé most people would scoff at: he’d filed for bankruptcy many times over, had a record of making racist and sexist remarks, has been married three times, and had racked up an impressive number of sexual misconduct allegations. In short, his last few decades in the spotlight would have embarrassed even his own parents (as if Trump didn’t already have daddy issues).
He was literally a joke—the reality TV star was the butt of President Obama’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner speech in 2011. No one ever would have said to him: “Donald, it’s your time. Run for office! We need you.”
But he did. And then Trump won the election. (I’d say fair and square, but the Russians had something to do with it, so let’s leave it at he won the electoral college and move on.)
Donald Trump is president of the United States of America. (As of this writing, at least. Who knows what might happen?)
It’s likely that, just like Donald, you’re not going to be asked to run for office. No one is going to come up and tap you on the shoulder to tell you it’s your turn.
Until right now. I’m asking you to run for office.
You can’t wait for the cavalry to save the day. You can’t wait for someone else to have the courage. Every possible excuse you can come up with is bullshit. If Donald Trump can be our president, even if he’s an incompetent one, you can run for local office.
Let’s start with a big one: It’s okay if you don’t look or sound like a politician.
“When I was knocking on doors I heard whispers and grumblings about me being gay, and I would say, ‘Listen, I’m not scared or afraid of my past. Let me be very clear right off the bat: I’m proudly gay, I’m HIV-positive, I’m Puerto Rican, and I’m formerly homeless. This is who I am.’ I think these details actually add to the richness of your story and your life. A lot of people out here are struggling and are being marginalized. They want somebody who can relate to them—not somebody from a different stratosphere.”
—NELSON ROMAN, city councilor of Holyoke, MA, on owning his story
Think a little bit about what the expression “look like a politician” means—the image of “politician” probably (and unfortunately) draws to mind an old white dude.
In 2014, Pew Research Center surveyed the adult population and found that approximately 2 percent of Americans have ever run for federal, local, or state office. And according to Pew’s “Profile of the 2%,” people who seek office tend to be exactly what we picture: white, male, and well-educated.1
Because fewer women and fewer people of color run, the number of women and people of color in elected office often doesn’t statistically reflect the population served.
Let’s start with “WHITE”: According to that same Pew study, non-Hispanic whites make up 66 percent of the American adult population but 82 percent of the people who’ve sought elected office. Non-Hispanic blacks make up 12 percent of the population but only 5 percent of office-seekers. Fifteen percent of U.S. adults are Hispanic, but only 6 percent have run for office.
“MALE”: Women make up only a quarter of the people who’ve run for office and are overwhelmingly underrepresented at all levels of government. The City University of New York Institute for State and Local Governance put out a study in the fall of 2016 that breaks it down.2
19.4 percent of the U.S. Congress are women
24.6 percent of U.S. state legislators are women
33.6 percent of city councils in the top 100 U.S. cities are women
18.2 percent of elected mayors in the top 100 U.S. cities are women
19.3 percent of mayoral candidates in the top 100 U.S. cities are women
This isn’t our fault. Research shows women are less likely than men to be encouraged by parents, teachers, or party leaders to run—to put a number to it, men are 15 percent more likely to be recruited to run.3
When women run, we win at the same rates as men, but we’re not getting in the door in the first place. (I’ll get into who does this “recruiting” later, but if you’re impatient to find out, here’s a sneak preview: It’s often a bunch of men who work at a party committee, who ask their friends to run.)
Women are also less likely to run without being prodded. Countless academic studies show that we underestimate our abilities and assume we need to be even more qualified than men in order to run for office, or apply for that job, or raise our hand to speak. Sound familiar? Every time I read an article that highlights research like this, alarm bells of self-recognition go off in my head. Fuck you, patriarchy.
There are clear systemic problems holding women back: We’re often the heads of our households and/or primary caretakers of our kids or parents. We tend to have less disposable income. Still, we can’t let the bastards grind us down. The sad reality is that if women are going to be fairly represented in government, more of us will need to make the sacrifice, do the hard work, and run anyway.
Finally, “OLD:” More than 40 percent of adults who have *ever* run for office are sixty-five and older, directly impacting the makeup of our government. Only 5 percent of state legislators are under the age of thirty-five! Even though these legislating bodies are making decisions that affect the under-thirty-five demographic (i.e., me, and maybe you), we’re not usually part of the conversation.
That is not to say that old white men don’t have value: They do. But they can’t be the only ones in the room.
So, unfortunately, if you’re a young woman, a young person of color, or anything other than an old white dude, you might not have as many role models, mentors, or networks that make running for office easier.
And on top of that, yes, the bar is higher for you. Mediocre white men get a pass; you don’t. That just sucks. But the only way you fix it is by running, winning, and then changing the system to let more people like you in.
Don’t second-guess yourself. Put aside your imposter syndrome—even the most extraordinary people assume they’re not qualified.
For example: Oprah Winfrey gave an interview after the 2016 election in which she told Bloomberg’s David Rubenstein she had always assumed she wasn’t qualified to be president. Oprah, the queen and dragon slayer herself, believed she wasn’t qualified to serve in public office.
Whether or not I think Oprah is qualified to be president is beside the point—I don’t think she should be president.
I think YOU should be president. Or your friend, or your sister. You should think about it, at least. And to get there one day, you have to start small. Start local. Donald Trump is president; forget the rules. You can do anything.
It doesn’t matter if you live in a red state.
It is certainly going to be harder if you live in a place that voted for Trump by fifty points. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run. In fact, I think it’s even more important that you run.
The way we promote progressive values is through people like you arguing for our policies on a local level in an authentic way, rooted in your community.
Your campaign will galvanize other people like you in your area—if, hypothetically, Trump won your district with 75 percent of the vote, that still means 25 percent of voters are with you. And those 25 percent of voters will see someone like them stepping up to lead. They’ll flock to you like moths to a flame. It’s already happening: Just in the first six months of 2017, even in special election losses, Democrats have shifted the margins in our direction in four Republican districts that Trump won.
But don’t wait for a plan on how to talk to Trump voters to come down from some mythical unicorn of a leader. You understand better than anyone what “progressive” means in your home. You know what policies could appeal to even your most conservative neighbors, and you know how to connect them to your life. You’re the progressive ambassador to your community—even if you don’t get their votes, you’ll make sure they aren’t just hearing a singular viewpoint.
Winning isn’t the only thing that matters. Just by running, you’re holding your elected official accountable. And there’s a pretty good chance Democrats in your area haven’t had someone to vote for in a while. Go to page 27 for more on why running—win or lose—matters.
It doesn’t matter if you live in a blue state, either.
I talk to first-time candidates constantly.
No one ever says to me: “I live in a competitive district where at any given point, either a Republican or a Democrat could win.” Whether you’d describe your community as red, blue, or something else entirely, remember: no one has it easy. Just jump in and compete.
No one ever says, “Adidas, you’re the only ones allowed to make shoes,” or “Gap, J.Crew makes the best jeans, you’re not allowed to make jeans anymore.” But in politics, limited competition is accepted because the “establishment” operates from a place of limited resources, scarcity of time, and hubris. Don't be afraid of a primary if you have something to say.
In this book, the “establishment,” or “party,” is defined as the network of organizations, including the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), the state parties, and all affiliated groups. In the interest of full transparency, I have worked with these organizations in the past and likely will again throughout my career. I think they do a lot of things well! However, they are sometimes shortsighted and often burdened by so much institutional bullshit that Democrats’ victories are frequently in spite of their work and not because of it.
THE WAY CANDIDATE RECRUITMENT IS “TRADITIONALLY” DONE
Typically, the establishment will target an open race or a vulnerable Republican incumbent. Then the staff and elected officials in the area will search for someone they or their networks know in the district (or they’ll literally uproot someone, move them to the district, and get them on the ballot).
In the past, this has inherently limited the talent pool to a particular network, perpetuating a cycle of typically older white men and their staffs or friends running for office. It also limits the geographic reach of the party: If you’re a Democrat who wants to run in an otherwise safe district, you’re on your own.
The party chooses candidates who are seen as “viable,” meaning they can raise money. In politics, “money” is understood to be shorthand for electability and success. If you can inspire people to financially invest in your campaign, it’s assumed that you can inspire people to vote for you, too. Until people vote, money is the clearest measure of which candidate is able to get support in a
meaningful way. This means the party tends to search for people with wealthy networks, since a candidate’s first round of fundraising prospects will come from his or her immediate circle.
This all assumes the party recruits for that office at all. The DCCC and DSCC are focused on federal races, and most state parties aren’t actively recruiting for races beyond state legislatures and perhaps mayoral races in bigger cities. No one is wholly responsible for finding the next generation of leaders to run for positions on city councils, county boards, school boards, and the like.
Recruited candidates (or party-approved candidates) get access to money, institutional knowledge, tools, coordination, and, arguably most important, the voter file.
The voter file is a list of registered voters that includes their name, address, history of voting behavior, and as much information as possible. It’s the Holy Bible of a campaign. Voter files (or subsets of them) make up the initial list of who candidates needs to talk to. They require a lot of money and time to keep up to date. Each time you change your address, the party needs to update your profile in the voter file. That requires tracking you down and getting the right info. A “clean and complete voter file” is every campaign manager’s dream. We’ll dig into how you get one on page 96.
The party staff believes they know who deserves that help, where they should focus their limited resources, and who should ultimately win.
That’s mostly bullshit. For one thing, the party’s track record is iffy at best (in no small part because there’s a lot that happens during an election that is entirely out of anyone’s control). For another, every cycle, the amount of money in politics goes up and up and up. Put aside for a moment judgment on whether that’s good or bad—it’s proof that the pool of resources available for political engagement is growing. But ultimately, it comes down to a simple belief: Institutions shouldn’t pick the winner of an election—voters should. When the party limits access to important resources that candidates need to
be successful, either because they don’t want to “play in the primary” or have chosen to protect the incumbent at the expense of allowing a new voice to enter the race and have a chance to succeed, the party is discouraging people from showing up at all.
Ultimately, it is to the Democratic Party’s benefit to encourage primaries and foster competition. Our best leaders come from places where there are competitive primaries! Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris come from California, a state with rich Democratic leadership. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton came from New York, and President Barack Obama came from Chicago—both places that are flooded with Democrats. When Democratic candidates have to work harder, engage with voters, and articulate their positions, the party ultimately becomes stronger.
So if you want to run against a Democratic incumbent, take a look at who represents you and decide whether you can make a compelling and positive case for what you believe and why your leadership would matter. If you can, run.
Don’t let the first person in the race scare you out of it. It’s not “first to file” who wins. It’s whoever the voters like. And if you’re true to who you are, passionate about the problems you want to solve, and willing to put in the work, voters will like you.
You don’t have be that into Politics with a capital P.
In fact, it’s better that you’re not into “Politics.” Voters hate politicians. Voters like real people—people like you.
This is an important axiom to keep in mind: Before you run, when you run, and even if you win, you’re still a voter and a citizen first. Be the kind of politician you’d want to vote for.
Voters want someone who understands their problems and who has real, lived experience. Presidential candidates get briefed each day on the price of milk in whatever city they’re in because those small but meaningful details of
life matter. So don’t worry if you don’t know that much about politics yet. You can learn the system and the rules.
“I did not anticipate the level of animosity toward me as a first-time candidate, especially in my district, from both the establishment figures in the party and some of the other candidates. I think there’s an automatic disdain for young candidates who are running for high levels of office for the first time. People think you need experience—to have been on city council or a county commissioner, or some other entry-level position in politics—before you can move up to the next level. But in Michigan, from my perspective, we need people who haven’t walked the traditional pathways to power to run for office. That means teachers, firefighters, and young entrepreneurs—folks who come at life with a different perspective.”
—DARRIN CAMILLERI, Michigan state legislator, on entering politics for the first time
You don’t need a long résumé. (And it’s okay if you’re young.)
Repeat after me: Donald Trump is president. Forget everything you’ve ever known about politics; you’re qualified to run for office.
Seriously. As of this writing, Betsy DeVos is the secretary of education, despite not believing we should have a public education system. Rick Perry is the secretary of energy despite saying in a presidential debate that he’d nix the entire agency. Ben Carson said himself that he wasn’t qualified to run a federal agency and was then appointed the housing and urban development secretary.
Federal positions have age requirements (you must be twenty-five to serve in the House of Representatives, thirty to serve in the U.S. Senate, and thirty-five to be president or vice president), and some local positions may as well (usually
candidates must be at least eighteen or in their mid-twenties), but there is no rule that says you need ten years of experience to be a school board member or fifteen years in the workforce to serve on city council.
What you do need, however, is experience as a member of the community. You need to intrinsically understand the people you’re trying to represent. Maybe that means you’ve volunteered with a local nonprofit, or maybe you’re a small-business owner. Maybe you’re a regular at the community center bingo night and you know all the folks at the local deli. Résumés don’t matter but deep roots do.
You don’t have to be rich.
Don’t think you have to fund your race yourself. In fact, it’s better that you don’t. Fundraising is hard and often exhausting, but it’s how you get people invested in your race. You know who’s most likely to vote for you? Someone who’s given you money and is financially invested in your success. (I’ll talk a lot about how to ask people for money starting on page 141. Don’t worry about it for the moment.)
That being said: While you don’t need to be a billionaire or a millionaire like Trump, you should be financially stable. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, running might seriously hurt your financial health. But if you’ve got your financial house in order, there will be ways to make it work.
You don’t need to be a policy wonk.
See: Donald Trump, who needs a Schoolhouse Rock! refresher on how a bill becomes a law.
You can learn the ins and outs of policy on the job. You can get help from people who lovingly geek out over the tax code and who will patiently walk you through every line of a new zoning ordinance. You don’t have to be an expert in everything. You do have to be passionate about what drives you and be willing to listen, learn, and accept that objective truths exist and facts matter. If you can do all that, you’ll be okay.
As women, I think we—I mean, I—feel nervous about not being an expert on everything. But you don’t have to know everything. I think the merits of being a good leader are surrounding yourself with people who know more than you or are experts in different things. Being comfortable asking questions, or saying you don’t have that information and getting it from people who do, is just as valuable as having the information yourself.”
—LIZ DOERR, school board member in Richmond, VA, on knowing what you don’t know
You don’t have to be a lawyer.
We need more teachers, scientists, technologists, social workers, nurses, doctors, stay-at-home parents, veterans, janitors, professors, students, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, and whatever-you-ares to run for office. Your experience and your perspective will make you better at governing; you’ll come at this with fresh eyes and a unique viewpoint.
Lawyers are great, and if you’re a lawyer who wants to run, do it. But if you’re not a lawyer, don’t think you’re not welcome. You are.
And you definitely don’t need to be perfect, online or off.
Four Reasons Why It’s Okay to Be a Flawed Human
1. There’s a concept in punditry and media theory called the Overton window—also known as “the window of discourse”—used to describe the range of ideas the public will accept. Simply put, an idea that is absolutely bananas is at one end of the Overton window; an idea that is accepted policy is at the other. Before Trump ran for office, if you had predicted that a presidential candidate (or any candidate) would be “a millionaire who once called the 1980s his ‘personal Vietnam’ because he managed to have a lot of sex without catching an STD,” you would have been laughed out of the room. Trump’s victory pushed the limits of what we deem to be
appropriate behavior for a political candidate. There’s almost no chance you’ve tweeted something worse than what Trump has tweeted. It’s unlikely there are any photos of you as ridiculous as some of the photos of him. And while the rules didn’t quite apply to him, don’t worry. The public has shown the outer limits of what they’re willing to tolerate from a public official. You’re probably fine.
2. Presidential and congressional races often get nasty and personal. School board and city council races are almost never nasty or personal. The people you’re talking to every day will know the real you and not the you they see in headlines.
3. The kinds of mistakes most people make are quickly becoming normalized for our elected officials. As we begin to flood the zone with scores of people who’ve grown up on the internet and have lived in public for much of their lives, it stops being interesting when someone has a silly tweet or Instagram post, because everyone has one of those.
4. Think about the politicians you like and respect. Are they perfect people with scripted talking points and perfectly polished personas? No. They’re the ones who get a little sassy on Twitter, or who Snapchat like a real person, or who post family recipes on the internet every holiday. Your flaws make you real and genuine—you are the kind of person many politicians have to be coached into being. Lean into it.
That being said: It’s important to recognize the land mines. Be aware of your strengths, your weaknesses, your regrets, your financial difficulties, and your personal scandals. Everything known can be handled—it’s the secrets that get you in the end. (As the expression goes: It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.) Anything that you might imagine is a deal-breaker probably isn’t. Are you in student debt? Did you have to refinance your house? Do you have a photo of you in college playing beer pong? None of those are deal-breakers as long as you and your team know about them.
You can’t wait. If you want to stop Trump, you have to run now.
Resisting Trump’s agenda starts at the local level. When Trump signed an executive order promising to halt funding to municipalities that didn’t cooperate with his immigration rulings, mayors fought back. They established their cities as sanctuary cities. They said no. When Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Accord, devastating the global fight to prevent climate change, city and state leadership stepped up to sign on themselves.
The headlines might cover what’s happening in Congress or in the courts, but in your community, resistance looks like community centers welcoming refugees in for dinner, cities finding new funding for health care centers that Trump’s budget might cut, or school boards promising to protect trans kids’ rights even if Trump’s government won’t. Local leaders—city council members, school board members, mayors, and state legislators—are leading the charge because they are in direct contact with the people who are hurt by these policies.
You don’t have to win to be a leader. Just by running, you will have a platform to advocate. You’ll be able to get press, organize people, galvanize support, and engage people around your values.
Too many people are restless because they’re angry and brokenhearted but have no place to channel that energy. A campaign solves that problem—for you and for your community.
Running right now, win or lose, matters.
Things That Make a Real, Tangible, Long-Term Difference in People’s Lives
Running for office and winning, then governing to serve your constituents
Running for office and losing, having held your elected officials accountable
Supporting candidates who will govern according to your values by volunteering, donating, and voting
Voting in every election from here on out, regardless of whether or not you feel particularly inspired—because it’s your civic duty to show up
Things That Don’t Make a Real, Tangible, Long-Term Difference in People’s Lives
After all, waiting to get involved is part of the reason we’re in this mess in the first place.
Donald Trump can govern basically unchecked by Congress because we (“we” being progressives who give a shit about what happens to our country) didn’t push ourselves in a big way to get involved on the local level.
Let’s zoom out: Members of Congress are more partisan than ever. According to partisanship scores commonly used by academics, Democrats have gotten a little bit more liberal and Republicans have gotten a lot more conservative.4
This is in part because of everyone’s favorite buzzword: gerrymandering.
On the congressional level, gerrymandering has created a system in which the only contest that really matters is the primary. In order to win that contest, a politician needs to appeal to primary voters, and primary voters tend to be the most dedicated, most passionate people—the extremists. (This is true regardless of party.)
That’s how we got whackadoodle conservative congressmen. And that’s how we got a Congress that seems unlikely to ever impeach Donald Trump (although I hope I’m wrong about that)—and in fact will stand behind even his craziest acts and proclamations. Yes, it’s because they have no spine and no moral conscience. But it’s also because the only constituents they need to pay attention to in order to ensure reelection are the folks who vote in their primaries, and the people who vote in Republican primaries are Trump Republicans.
Gerrymandering is the reason for all that—and gerrymandering is driven by our state legislatures, who redraw the districts after each census. (Best way
to fix it: Get more progressives like you into local government and pushing for independent commissions to draw new boundaries. You are the solution.)
In 2017, Republicans ran the show in state capitals. As of this writing, Republicans control both chambers in thirty-two states, including seventeen with veto-proof majorities—those thirty-two states account for 61 percent of the U.S. population. Democrats control the legislature in just thirteen states (representing only 28 percent of the population) and have veto-proof majorities in only five.
Republicans have governor’s mansions in thirty-four states, while Democrats only have sixteen (though the Alaskan governor, who ran as an independent, is supported by Democrats).
This isn’t an accident. For the last decade, Republicans have had a national strategy to explicitly take over state Houses. They’ve moved around hundreds of millions of dollars to fund state and local races with a particular goal: Win state Houses so they can gerrymander the fuck out of Congress (and drag policy-making on the local level as far right as they can).
The Koch brothers have invested huge amounts of money in this and in talent development writ large—they’ve even set up an organization called the Leadership Institute, with an annual budget of more than $30 million. There is no comparable progressive organization with the same kind of money.
Democrats are a bit behind on this, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this book and are regularly debated on Twitter, if you’re interested. But as a party, we’re working on it. And you can be a part of the solution. Don’t wait for someone to tell you it’s your turn. Step up and run.
The only thing you really need to have to run is the right motivation.
Don’t run because you want to be something. Run because you want to do something. Run because there’s a problem you want to solve and an office that lets you solve it.
There is a type of campaigning that some folks have called “conviction politics”—that’s a jargony way of saying something simple: Run on your values and ideas rather than trying to adapt to fit the consensus or take positions that are popular in the polls.
It’s not complicated. If you believe in something, say it. If you disagree with something, say that, too. Take a stand, be informed, have an opinion, and base it on your values.
Saying your true opinion is honestly just so much easier than trying to figure out where the people are and then following their lead. If you’re not being true to your gut, you’ll end up tired on the trail one day and slipping up, doing your campaign more long-term damage by undermining your own credibility.
It feels peak cliché to say it, but it’s true: Just be your best, most authentic self.
Good Reasons to Run for Office the First Time
You have a specific problem you want to solve and there’s an office that lets you solve it.
Your elected official isn’t representing your values.
You believe your particular community is underrepresented in your government.
Bad Reasons to Run for Office the First Time
You can win.
You want to run for a bigger office in four years.
You think the title sounds nice.
You’re holding a grudge.
The perks are cool.
Grad school is too expensive and this seems more fun.
Be willing to work hard.
This is the most important requirement. Campaigns are hard work. They’ll break you down and build you back up. Your entire life might change.
People who work on campaigns professionally will tell you that doing so is the best/worst/hardest/scariest/most important thing you could do with your life. Candidates feel that even more. The pressure is unimaginable. The public scrutiny is penetrating. The hours are infinite and the work is sometimes exciting, but more often it’s grinding and menial.
But to use yet another cliché, nothing good comes easy, and serving your community is genuinely doing good. It should be hard work to run for office. You should have to hustle to talk to voters, knock on doors, and earn your constituents’ trust. If you win your election, you’ll be making decisions that will directly impact their lives. They should be asking you tough questions, holding you accountable, and demanding to know what you believe. You’re their representative. Once they give you their vote, you’ll be their eyes, ears, and voice—you’ll be in the room where it happens, fighting for your people.
Serving in elected office is an incredible privilege. You have to earn it. But you don’t have to be a rich old white male lawyer with a flawless background to have the chance to try.
“I had a full-time–plus job that required fifty or sixty hours a week of my time. I was raising my sons (we have three) and I was campaigning at night and on weekends. It can be exhausting, but almost always exhilarating. I’m a high-energy person, always have been, but anyone running—and doing it right—should be prepared to commit the time and energy.”
—CHERI BUSTOS, congresswoman from Illinois, on the hardest part of her first campaign