Are you being called to run for office?

Our system of governance is determined by those who participate.  Ultimately this requires good people to step forward and run for office.  After all, in our republic we need leaders who can properly represent the people who might otherwise be too busy doing other things.  

Depending on the position you’re seeking, running for office can be either a relatively simple process or an extremely daunting endeavor.  Every elected position is important since those in office have some level of responsibility for and accountability to the citizens they represent. 

Determining which office to run for is often the biggest challenge (or misstep) for some.  Does your passion match your time and ability to run for higher office or can you make a bigger difference at the local level?  Will you specifically be seeking a partisan office that might align more with the platform of one party over another, or is the desired position non-partisan and require you to take a more neutral approach and appeal to all voters?  Lastly, do your strong opinions reflect the bulk of the people in the ward, municipality or district you wish to represent?  Would enough people vote for you to win?

First let’s take a look at partisan offices.  In Wisconsin, these are held in the fall (generally the first Tuesday of November in even-numbered years).  Several local positions in Wisconsin are partisan, meaning candidates declare a political party in which they’d like to be affiliated with on the ballot.  County Clerk, Coroner and Sheriff are all county-level positions that for better or worse are run as partisan elections, even though these positions don’t tend to be overly political in nature compared to the legislature.  Unlike the legislature where elected officials come from a broad background of professions and experiences, these local partisan positions require a certain level of training and expertise.  While not required, it is assumed that a sheriff will have a strong background in law enforcement and a coroner will have a medical background. 

In rural areas, running for local office is a relatively simple task that doesn’t require a campaign team or big budget.  While these offices reimburse for meetings, local representatives rarely run for office as a source of income as stipends are relatively low.  Most see it as a voluntary civic duty to run. 

Running for the state legislature, Governor or federal office is a different matter.  Recent competitive assembly races now can cost several hundred-thousand dollars to run.  Congressional races can be expected to cost several million and a winning statewide Governor or U.S. Senate race can easily cost at least $30 million.  Candidates are expected to raise a good portion of this money, so they either should be independently wealthy to self-fund or have the ability to put together a team that can fundraise to keep up with the demand of expensive media campaigns. 

The allure of running for a high-profile office such as Governor might be tempting.  After-all, the executive of the state holds a lot of power, gets to reside in a mansion with capitol police protection, gets the fame (or notoriety) that comes along with the position and receive a fair reimbursement compared to the average taxpayer.  The Wisconsin Governor salary is $152,000 and a federal member of Congress gets $174,000.  Consequently, these races are much more competitive and costly.  

This isn’t to say the average person cannot or should not run for higher office.  Most governors or members of congress would consider themselves fairly average and technically the requirement to get on the ballot is relatively easy; candidates file paperwork to declare their candidacy and submit the proper amount of signatures to get on the ballot.  What happens between those basic requirements and election day, or the actual ‘campaign’, is the major differentiator.  Strong candidates will need to relentlessly fund raise and build a campaign war chest to buy advertising to both get their message out to voters and fend off attacks from their opponents.  They will need a team of professionals versed in scheduling, media and messaging, fundraising and financial reporting compliance.  They will need the time to travel to every corner of the state or district to meet with voters and donors to gain support.   And of course their public and private record and the records of their family will be investigated and scrutinized under a microscope and any potential ‘dirty laundry’ could be made public through smear campaigns.  

As important as asking ‘What do you believe in?’ voters should also ask candidates ‘How are you going to win?’  Local candidates might be able to get by with Facebook and letter-to-the-editor campaigns, but that doesn’t cut it for higher office races against well-funded opponents.  Most would agree that campaigns should be about issues, but in modern-day politics, campaigns are often more about name recognition and popularity.  Campaign dollars are used to build a candidate’s brand and positive impression with voters but a nearly equal amount will simultaneously spent by the opposition to drive the candidate’s negative image.  Imagine Coca-Cola spending $100 million to tout its new product while at the same time Pepsi spends $100 million in negative ads against Coke.  This is modern-day high-stakes politics. 

Now that you’re thoroughly frightened and disgusted with the election process, there is one logical next step: run.  America’s republic is preserved when good people step up to the challenge and lead.  If your schedule allows, try your hand at local office.  Learn the basics of grassroots campaigning and legislating.  Public governance is a different beast than the private sector.  Government moves intentionally slow through the committee process.  Meetings need to be noticed and run by parliamentary procedure.  Votes and conversations are open to public scrutiny.  Undertaking that civic duty can be both frustrating and rewarding at the same time.  You can continue to complain about the government we have, or you can become part of the solution.  After all, our municipality, school board, state or nation are only as good as the people we elect to represent us.