Political campaigns are a passion of mine — being a candidate and helping others run. I have run many times, and won most of those races, and I currently volunteer as a trainer with Emerge, a candidate training program for Democratic women.
In a normal election cycle, I’ll receive a call or two from people new to politics who want to know how to run. Since November, I’ve received no fewer than a dozen calls. It’s wild that so many people are inspired to run, folks who have never been involved before.
And I get it, Donald Trump has proven that any idiot can run for office and win. Well, any idiot with a popular TV show, an international brand and a willingness to say and do absolutely anything to win — no matter how outrageous.
Most of the people contacting me, though, are regular folks who are fired up to make a difference. They are so outraged by the Trump administration’s disastrous first few months that they are inspired to jump into the political fray.
Since so many of you are considering a run for public office, I thought I’d give you a few things to think about before making your decision:
1. Start small.
I have several smart friends with no political experience who have told me they want to run for mayor of San Francisco. I remind these would-be-mayors that 99 percent of all elected officials start small, like really small: college board, party delegate, Board of Education. They work their way up to bigger and bigger positions. They take their time honing their political skills, sharpening their instincts and building good will among constituencies. You can choose mayor as the first office you run for, but be prepared to have your hat handed to you by someone with much more experience.
Running for office requires having name recognition, access to money and the support of key groups. The higher the office, the more important these are. And they take time to build … unless you are a wealthy celebrity with a household name.
(If you are Oprah, you can do anything you want.)
2. Plan ahead. Way ahead.
Most successful candidates will plan for years — sometimes even decades — before announcing they are running. Most offices are only open every four years and are often occupied by incumbents who will be nearly impossible to beat. Sometimes, you will want to wait until that incumbent is termed out or retires or becomes vulnerable because of a change in political climate. In the meantime, you should become the best candidate you can be: understanding the issues, practicing public speaking, taking a leadership role in a local political group, getting in good physical shape, getting yourself appointed to a commission that will help build your political résumé and demonstrate your commitment to the community.
You will also need to figure out the basic requirements of the office you are seeking. If you are running for supervisor, you need to live in the district you want to represent (or, you know, go to prison. See: Ed Jew). Some offices have campaign contribution limits and every candidate for every office is required to file forms. So many forms! Learn as much as you can about these things.
3. Develop a thick skin.
Think of your deepest, darkest secret … the one you don’t want your mom to know. Picture it on the front page of the local newspaper every day for a week. Think of how you will respond publicly to your secret being revealed. If you are ready for this, then you are ready to run.
4. Get real about money.
Go to your county’s website and figure out how much money the incumbent spent when he or she ran. Then call all of your friends and ask them to donate. And then call everybody you might have met once at a party, and your Facebook friends’ Facebook friends, and ask them to donate. Throw fundraisers and be disappointed when you spend almost as much on the party as you received in donations.
Get ready to spend a lot of your own scratch on things the campaign can’t pay for, like new politician costumes, expensive haircuts, memberships in every political club in town. If your personal financial situation isn’t stable, maybe wait to run. Because you might need to take six months off of your job for the campaign, and your marriage might fall apart and you suddenly need to pay a divorce lawyer.
(You think I’m kidding.)
And finally, why are you running? Do you want to win the office or are you trying to get a message across? To feed your ego? To impress your friends? There are lots of good reasons to run, and lots of bad ones. It’s good to figure this out before you jump in.
And remember: Most first-time candidates lose. But running is the best way to learn to win.
Alix Rosenthal is a municipal attorney, nasty woman and progressive activist who mentors and trains women to run for political office. She can be found on Twitter at @alixro and her blog is at www.votealix.com.