Thursday, May 10, 2007

Want to seek office? Here's some advice

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, May 5th:

Last weekend I had the pleasure of serving on a panel organized by the Community Action Network about running for local office. CAN is concerned, as am I, about the declining number of people putting themselves out to serve the public and its event was a wonderful step in the right direction.

All of the panelists had interesting anecdotes and tips to share about their experiences running for office.

For instance, former Carrboro Alderman Allen Spalt was mortified during his first campaign to open up the newspaper and find that he had been listed as a Republican! An accomplished liberal activist over many years, he used this example to show the importance of swiftly correcting any inaccurate information put out about you in public.

Charlie Lancaster, who has served as a campaign treasurer for Kevin Foy and Laurin Easthom, made some good points about the financial aspect of running a campaign. One key tip he related was that even though you are only required to list the occupation and employer of a donor if they give more than $100, there's the possibility that if they give you $50 in September, they might give another $50 in October. So it's always good to get that information ahead of time!

Former Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member Nick Didow talked about how much more there is to being an elected official than necessarily meets the eye. It's not just going to meetings. He said that folks frequently came up to him in the grocery story to give him a piece of their mind. He wasn't complaining, though; he said as intense as it got at times, the experience was always very rewarding.

Ruby Sinreich, Chapel Hill planning board chair and editor of, talked about the use of technology in the campaign. She noted that we have gotten to the point where no serious candidate for office would go without a Web site, but that doesn't mean candidates need to break the bank either. For instance they could start up a blog to serve as a campaign Web site for free. That's what Mark Kleinschmidt did during his successful re-election campaign.

Kleinschmidt was also on the panel, and he emphasized the importance of working well with the media. He said forging strong relationships with folks in the press and keeping them in the loop about things going on with the campaign makes it much easier for a candidate to get the message out.

I focused most strongly on the mechanics of running a successful campaign. Here are four tips I would encourage any candidate for public office to keep in mind:

* Be organized. Have specific people overseeing specific parts of your campaign, and know well in advance what you're going to do and when you're going to do it. Planning ahead will help keep everyone's sanity intact and ensure that you don't make any critical mistakes, especially by forgetting to do something until after it's too late.

* Get a good group of volunteers and show your appreciation for them. There's no way to run a campaign by yourself. You need folks to put up signs, work at the polls, write letters to the editor and do lots of other stuff. These people could be spending time with their families, going to the movies or doing about a million other things but they're taking time out because they care about you and what your election would do for the community. Make sure to let them know how much you appreciate it as often as you can. It will make for a happier and more productive campaign team.

* Use your friends. Before you pay a graphic designer to make your brochure or give someone a bunch of money to do your Web site, think about who you know that might be able to do it well for free. Odds are they'll be more attentive to you than someone who's more worried about getting a pay check anyway.

* Maintain your perspective. If someone writes something unpleasant about you on a blog or you don't get an endorsement you had hoped to receive, don't let it get you away from your campaign plan. One thing itself will almost never break a campaign, but letting it distract you from everything else you need to be doing could.

This fall there are four seats open on the Chapel Hill Town Council, four on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board, three on the Carrboro Board of Aldermen and three on the Hillsborough Town Board.

Democracy thrives when voters have a number of strong candidates to choose from.

Check the TV listings for the replay schedule of the Community Action Network's election workshop on the People's Channel -- it's worth a watch whether you're considering a run yourself or even if you're just interested in knowing what goes into a campaign.



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