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Things to consider before running for public office
By Adam A Isackson
As someone who has managed, consulted on and volunteered for countless campaigns it’s my experience that very few people actually take the time necessary to thoughtfully consider the realities before leaping into the public arena. It’s my goal in writing this to provide you with the tools necessary to make a wise decision, or save yourself, and your family, from the hardships that inevitably come from a premature one.
The following format has been put together as a means to spur your own thoughts and consideration. This guide is not meant to be read straight through but to spur your own thought process through a series of meaningful questions that should be reflected on by not only you but your family as well.
It’s also important to remember to consider the totality of the questions presented and not necessarily become hung up on the few that might reflect negatively on your decision. Certain things, even those that might appear to be nails in your coffin, can be dealt with. Again the goal is not to frighten, or dissuade but to assist in making a wise and informed decision.
Are you willing and able to commit the time necessary?
Running for office is a time consuming chore. If you’re not willing and able to make it more than a full time job you’re likely just wasting what time you do commit to it. If you’re currently employed does your employment grant you any flexibility? What about your family? Would running for office put undue stress on them and limit your time with them to unacceptable levels?
Are you financially stable? What effects will running have on your finances?
Running for office is an expensive endeavor. Yes there are many campaign related expenses that can be written off and billed to your campaign however things such as lost wages and productivity can’t. If you are elected and you currently make a comfortable living what would the effect of holding office have on your future bottom line?
Are you the best candidate for the job?
This is a question that few potential candidates consider. Is there another potential candidate better suited to run and to serve then you are? Is it at all possible that your running could do more harm than good to your political ideals and priorities?
Is there a better role for you politically?
If you’re considering running simply as a way to get involved and make a difference maybe there’s another and better role for you? Would your time and money be better spent in a supporting another campaign or serving on a local board or advisory committee?
Why do you want to run? What are your long term goals?
Are you running because you want to win, serve and affect future policy? Do other considerations come into play?
How supportive is your family?
Running for office is not only a big commitment on your part but also of your family. Will you have significant time to dedicate to everything that is important to you? What about the increasing obligations and work load on your family? Do you think they can deal with those increasing burdens for 6 months to a year with little to no break?
Are you willing to have your baggage aired out in public?
Do you or someone close to you have significant problems in your past? Will those problems damage your candidacy or affect your family adversely? In my experience these issues almost always surface eventually if you’re not willing to release that information yourself.
Have you built up a sufficient resume?
Despite what some might think the vast majority of successful campaigns are built around impressive resumes. Try to think about your resume objectively. Putting party ID and viewpoints aside how do you stack up to your likely competition? Try to think about running for office as a job interview. It is easier then you might think to get involved with the numerous local boards and committees in your area and doing so would add some significant padding to your resume.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Building on the last question this is something that you must consider. Are you well positioned to do all the things necessary, and do them well, to run a strong campaign?
Do you have strong interpersonal skills?
Can you approach people, engage them and listen to them? Are you the kind of person who can knock on a stranger’s door or cold call them or would the prospect of doing that for months on end horrify you?
Can you ask people for money?
Asking people for money is a necessity unless you can afford to pump a ton of money into your own campaign. Despite what you might think, for most campaigns the money isn’t likely to flow into your campaign coffers without some serious personal effort on your part. This includes cold calling, setting up meetings with big donors and lobbyists and asking them to invest in your campaign. Furthermore if you think you can run a minimalist campaign you’re probably nuts.
Do you have the necessary knowledge?
There’s nothing like a campaign to expose your ignorance about a particular subject. If someone asked you a question about the particulars of an important issue are you confident that you would be able to adequately answer it? Are you well informed about the bills and or proposals currently under discussion in the elected body that you wish to serve in? Are there some important issues where you could legitimately be considered an expert on?
Are you presentable?
People are visual and if you’re not presentable it will have an adverse effect on your campaign. Consider the Nixon / Kennedy televised debates if you doubt that. If you’re not or could improve in a few areas it’s time to get to work or get some professional help.
Would you be an effective representative?
If you’re elected would you be able to build up clout quickly? Would you be able to effectively deal with constituent issues? Would you be able to draft significant policy?
Would you likely face primary opposition?
This should be a very important factor in your decision. Any primary challenge will serve as a distraction for you and the voters and a serious one will cost you time, money and will damage your ability to run an effective campaign. If you’re the likely underdog it’s also important to consider the negative effect your campaign might have on your primary opponent who probable shares the majority of your views. Is it possible that your candidacy could help elect someone who shares almost none of your views?
What issues matter to the people of your district?
What issues matter the most to the people of your district and are you a good fit for the district? Do you live in a high rent district full of business professionals who mostly care about fiscal issues? What issues are you passionate about? If people think your priorities are different then their own they will be skeptical about supporting your candidacy.
Would the likely political environment be an asset or a liability?
In 2006 some strong Republican candidates were defeated and in 2010 Democrats faced the same problem. The likely national environment aside, what about the demographics of your district? Have people of your political ideology had much success?
Are you electable?
The big question: All things considered can and will you win in your political environment, against your likely opponent? What would most honest and electorally informed think of your chances?
What if you don’t win?
If you run a close race and or a better opportunity against a weaker opponent presents itself will you likely run again?
What is your natural base?
Who will be your primary supporters if you run? How big of an asset would they likely be? Do you have deep roots with a powerful political force? If you have deep ties to a particular group, one example being realtors, what would they be able to provide or assist your campaign with?
Would people be excited about your candidacy?
If you can’t excite your base of support how are you going to excite others? It’s a lot easier to run a campaign when you have a ton of people so excited about your candidacy that they can’t help but tell all of their family, friends and neighbors how wonderful you are.
Will people volunteer for you?
Will people take time out their hectic schedule to pound the pavement with you and assist you with everything else you need to do to run a successful campaign? It’s a lot easier, and a lot more motivating when you have a bunch of people who believe in you and who are willing to go the extra mile to support you.
Will your party support you?
Many a great potential public servant and powerful incumbent have gone down to defeat because they were unable or unwilling to garner party support. Like it or not these are the people who have the connections, know the major players and can get you through a primary. They also know the terrain and can get you some of the financial and physical support you need.
Can you build a strong campaign infrastructure?
Do you have the resources available to put together a strong campaign team? The larger the office sought the bigger the campaign needed. Do you know a strong, experienced campaign manager who can work with you daily and help put that team in place? What about a professional consultant? What about other positions? Who can help you put together a campaign? Who can help you find these people?
This is certainly by no means should be the end all when it comes to making a decision about running for public office. Before doing so I would strongly advise sitting down not only with your family but consulting with numerous professionals who are experienced in running campaigns similar in scope to the one you’re considering running. Not only are they likely better positioned then you are to answer many of these questions but if you do decide to run they will likely be well positioned to provide you with much of the initial support and knowledge that you need to successfully launch your campaign.
This article was put together because it’s my wish to impart some of the wisdom I have gained, through my many trials and errors, to the many good people out there who want to serve their country in the political arena. I hope I’ve provided some help, and good luck in all of your future endeavors.
About the author
Adam Isackson currently resides in Tacoma, Washington where he has managed, worked on and volunteered for countless campaigns since the 90’s. Most recently managing the campaigns of now State Rep. Jan Angel (R), who took an open (D) seat in ’08, and who was resoundingly reelected in 2010. If you have any question, comments or additional suggestions for a further update to this article you can contact the author @ [email protected] or by phone by calling 253-678-1707 . As always questions, comments, suggested additions and concerns are appreciated.