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Run for Office

January 19, 2017

Slate: Run for Office

by Osita Nwanevu

On Friday, Donald J. Trump, liar, con man, bigot, serial assailant, former reality TV star, failed casino magnate, failed football team owner, failed airline owner, failed magazine publisher, failed steak salesman, and loser of the national popular vote, will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. The moment he is, the Republican Party, already in total control of 25 state governments and the legislatures of seven others, will have full command of federal policymaking. The only check on its federal legislative power, the Senate filibuster, can be done away with more or less at will. Donald Trump may appoint as many as three justices to the Supreme Court over the course of his presidency; more than 100 vacant federal judgeships await his appointments right now. With this amassed power, the Republican Party aims, among other things, to dismantle a law that has provided health insurance to millions, deport at an unprecedented clip many millions of immigrants who have made lives in America, dramatically cut food stamps and other social services for the poorest in the country, impede access to abortions and women’s health care nationwide, continue efforts to disenfranchise black voters, and prevent the United States from making any further efforts to address a climate crisis that, sooner or later, will imperil all civilization—all while slashing taxes and regulations in legislation that will disproportionately enrich the wealthiest and most powerful people in America. In 2009, conservatives cried that the policies of Barack Obama would bring about a fundamental transformation of American society. They did not. The policies of the Trump administration and an ascendant Republican Party may well do so. All of this has, perhaps, upset you.

In the days immediately following the election, some of you took to protest. This weekend is sure to bring more of you into the streets for a few days of commotion and catharsis. Some of you have brought your dissent to social media—the #notmypresident hashtag is still going strong, as are reminders tweeted daily that this situation, lest anyone has forgotten, is not normal.

You. You, with the undocumented parents; you, PTA regular; you, professor; you, concerned citizen, should run.
More substantively, many of you have poured time and money into organizations aimed at helping the communities that the Trump presidency and the Republican Party will hurt the most. Many of you have subscribed to publications, such as this one, that have pledged to hold the incoming administration accountable. There is everywhere a new enthusiasm for grassroots political, labor, and community organizing. All of this is good. None of it is enough.

The most meaningful thing you can do in the age of Trump, for your community, for your country, is run for office. Across America, Republican politicians stand ready to do their part in the implementation of the Trump and GOP agenda. Beat them. Across America, Democrats blind to the stakes of the moment, comfortable in their positions or too timid to fight effectively against the Republican Party, stand, like bowling pins, ready to be knocked down again. Replace them. Not with some milquetoast professional or former lobbyist groomed by the state party. You. You, with the undocumented parents; you, who remembers when your town was a steel town; you, PTA regular; you, professor; you, concerned citizen, should run.

The moment does not demand that you run for Congress, although many of you should. There are, by one count, 519,682 elective offices in the United States, each with a role to play in mitigating the trickle-down effects of hegemonic Republican governance on vulnerable communities in the Trump era. Many of these offices are already held by admirable public servants. Many are not. And every election, many of those who ought to be replaced run unopposed. About one-third of state legislative races in 2012 featured a single candidate running unopposed, most of them incumbents. This was not because those candidates were the only qualified people available or because they were singularly excellent at their jobs. This was not because a third of them were unbeatable. People who could have run—people who should have run—did not. In November, incumbent Republican Pete Sessions was easily re-elected to the House despite Clinton’s win over Donald Trump in his Texas district. How? The Democrats ran the worst candidate they had against him: nobody.

Republicans are better at running in every competitive contest they can. And for decades, the conservative movement—from the Goldwaterites to the Tea Partiers—has been in large part a local movement. Today’s Republican dominance was built on all the attention lavished on ground-level politics. Every textbook controversy brought about by a right-wing school board, for instance, proves that conservatives take even minor offices seriously. So should you.

Four first-time candidates explain how they did it.
Perhaps entering politics has never occurred to you. This is precisely why you must. The ugliness and stupidity of politics are self-reinforcing. The liars, the corrupt, the nakedly ambitious, the career politicians who denounce career politics, the kind of people who hold up snowballs as evidence global warming doesn’t exist—they all depend on your cynicism, they all depend on you not getting into the game. Trump, in particular, could only have emerged from a political culture in which little but the worst is expected from politicians—many of his voters took the measure of his bluster, his ignorance, his dishonesty, and shrugged. They’re all like that, many reasoned.

Are you like that?

You already have a critical advantage over most of the people running today. You are not a creature of Washington. You are an everyday working American with a job outside of politics. You are exactly the person most candidates spend time and money to appear to be. The genuine article. A true outsider.

You informed and engaged young people, wildly underrepresented in government at all levels, have an even more obvious claim to outsider status than older folks, not to mention fewer encumbrances. The eligibility of adults younger than 30 for office is generally restricted by arbitrary and indefensible state and local laws. Nevertheless, many of you can—and should—run in your communities. Just do it. For you fortunate graduates of elite colleges, considering a run is practically a moral imperative given some of the most popular alternatives available to you. Do not tweet about the horrors that could await American Muslims and scamper off to an entry-level position at Booz Allen Hamilton. We have enough Teachers for America, enough SAT tutors, enough underpaid listicle artisans and GIF wranglers. We’ll live with a smaller crop of interns at J.P. Morgan or junior analysts at Goldman. The essential app you are developing is not essential and will never be. In grad school for the social sciences? The humanities? Quit immediately. And do not come to Washington unless you’ve been sent there by ballot. Spare no thoughts for the think tanks; there are better uses for your time than preparing white papers for uninformed members of Congress—such as unseating said members of Congress.

How exactly does one, young or old, go about running? A good question. The very first step is to throw away all your preconceived notions about what it takes to be a worthy candidate. Donald Trump, for better or for worse—likely for better—has exposed the thinness of conventional wisdom about the kinds of politicians who can succeed. You don’t need to be a skilled orator. You don’t need an unblemished past. Myriad other examples suggest you don’t even need to be unusually gregarious or captivating, either. Al Gore was mocked widely and endlessly for his woodenness in 2000. He won more votes anyway. Tom Cotton, Republican senator from Arkansas, a rising star in the party, has all the charisma of a black hole. Light bends around him. There are many kinds of politicians, and the diversity is best represented in state and local governments, where megawatt personalities serve side by side with diligent, unassuming former accountants. If you can hold polite conversation with strangers, you can run for office. The only other qualities you absolutely must have are tenacity and a willingness to pound the pavement.

Patsy Terrell and Brett Parker are two freshman Kansas legislators, entirely new to politics, who beat Republican incumbents in November. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s radical and unprecedented tax cuts have utterly failed to generate the economic growth promised by Republican dogma, led to massive cuts in public education and services, and made Brownback one of the most unpopular politicians in the nation. Despite this, Brownback was narrowly re-elected in 2014. It was his victory that encouraged Parker, a teacher, to run for a seat in the Kansas House in November’s election. “I kind of feel like I’m two years ahead of the curve of what people are feeling around the nation who had obviously different hopes for the presidential election,” he says. “Disappointment can be a powerful motivator.” Terrell, a social networking consultant, was also motivated by Brownback’s tenure and the role her opponent, Janice Pauls, a 25-year incumbent and former Democrat, had played in implementing it. “To my way of thinking, my opponent was using her position to make the world less fair and less just,” Terrell says. “That just offended me at my core level.”

Both Terrell and Parker managed to win with few political connections and almost no cash on hand to begin their campaigns. Fortunately, Kansas limits campaign contributions for state House races to $500, which gives novice candidates a fighting chance against incumbents. Winning ultimately came down to making the case for progressive priorities in red districts—and both Parker and Terrell campaigned on reversing Brownback’s tax cuts, defending public education, and carrying out Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion—and reaching out to as many voters as possible. “Once spring rolled around,” Parker says, “after teaching, I’d come home and grab my clipboard and go knock on doors in my neighborhood and talk to people about why I was running. I’d do that just about every evening and for as much time as I could on the weekends as well.”

Neither Terrell or Parker hired campaign staffers. They relied purely on the advice of people they happened to know and the time put in by volunteers.

“You pretty much have to have a team of people around you who believe enough in you to devote a tremendous amount of time and energy in getting you elected,” Terrell says. “And you know, some people will give you two hours on a Saturday afternoon, and some will give you a tremendous amount of their effort.”

Terrell ended up beating her opponent by 11 points. Parker beat his by 5. “The advice I would give to people thinking about running is that you’re more capable of it than you think,” Parker says. “If you’re new to it, it feels daunting, it feels like something for people who’ve wanted to run for office since they were in second grade. But there were a great many of us around Kansas who didn’t think about it until we saw how bad things were getting and said, ‘Well someone should do something about that.’ And if you look around long enough, eventually you go, ‘Oh, well maybe that someone should be me.’ ”

He means you. Talk with your family and the people close to you. Look into what you can expect to be paid in whatever office you may seek—contrary to popular belief, the salaries of many elected officials at the state and local levels aren’t terribly high. Legislators in most states, for instance, are paid less than $30,000 a year. This is a barrier to entry for many middle- and working-class people. But many others run and serve anyway.

If you get the go-ahead from your loved ones and holding office is financially realistic for you, begin. Look up filing deadlines and petitioning and disclosure requirements—your state’s secretary of state or your local or state board of elections will have them. Take advantage of candidate trainings. The National Democratic Training Committee offers free online training for Democratic candidates. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and Wellstone offer training specifically for progressives. EMILY’s List, She Should Run, and Emerge America are among the organizations offering training and resources specifically for women. EMILY’s List, in fact, will be holding a training session for 500 women the day after the Women’s March on Washington. The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund trains LGBTQ candidates and the New American Leaders Project trains candidates from immigrant communities. Take advantage, too, of the many, many books on running for office that have been written over the years.

Then, review election laws and start collecting seed money. Fundraising has never been easier for those who are not independently wealthy. The site Crowdpac, for instance, allows candidates at all levels to set up contribution sites and start collecting donations for free. If you can, hire a local campaign professional. If you can’t, consult with like-minded local leaders, political junkies, and advocates who might be able to advise you at no cost. Voilà. You have a campaign.

Perhaps you’re certain seeking office isn’t for you. Fine. But at least do this: encourage the smartest and most outspoken people you know to give it a shot. The friend who won’t shut up about gun background checks on Facebook. A family member who puts in countless hours at the food bank. Every American knows someone who should be in office. Indeed, every American knows someone at least more temperamentally qualified for the presidency than Donald Trump. But we’re starting small here.

Resistance to Trump cannot and should not be led by a political class that proved too ineffectual and too complacent to stop his rise. The Republican Party cannot be impeached, reasoned, shamed, or mocked out of existence. The Democrats may put forward a candidate capable of winning the presidency in 2020. They will never put forward a candidate capable of fully undoing the damage we will see done to the country or of advancing left-of-center priorities in the coming years alone. If you are angry, you are needed. Your voices must be heard. Your talents are demanded. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Don’t despair. Don’t boo. Run.