Whether it’s town council or Congress, ordinary people across the country are running for office – and winning. Why not you?
December 1, 2019
Even to a committed voter, getting into politics may seem like an uphill battle. Incumbents almost always hang onto their seats when challenged. Every state has its own longstanding dynasty that may act as a gatekeeper to local politics. Campaigns can be expensive and there’s no shortage of wealthy individuals ready to fund them with pocket change (Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois is worth an estimated $3.4 billion, while Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont is a multi-millionaire married to another multi-millionaire).
But our entire system of government hinges on ordinary citizens putting their ideas and ideals out there and running for office. And, in fact, more Americans are doing so than at any time in recent history. The 2018 midterm elections sent a record number of women, mostly Democrats, to Congress, and this year, more Republican women than ever before are running to counter them. While Congressional races eat up the lion’s share of the news cycle, state and local elections have heated up in the past few years, too. Two political scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed state lower-house races in the 2018 midterm elections, and found that fewer seats went uncontested than at any time in the past 46 years.
From the Boston suburb of Newton, where zoning battles dominated the recent city council elections, to Philadelphia, where 27 of 54 city council candidates had never run for elected office before, the latest wave of politicians is turning the narrative about American apathy on its head. Are you ready to change the system from the inside?
What Should I Run For?
Offices at every level – local, state, and federal – need smart, committed, principled people who are willing to build consensus and solve problems. Don’t assume that you aren’t qualified to run. An analysis by the Brookings Institution found that the 116th Congress (the one elected in 2018) is the least politically experienced ever, meaning that many new officials ran with no previous government experience on their resumes. And while most members of Congress have a college degree, a handful do not, including Representatives Lloyd Smucker (R-Penn) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.).
You may be familiar with some of the opportunities where you live, like state legislature, city or town council, and county commission, and those bodies are always in need of new blood. But consider other offices where you might have relevant expertise. Even those that sound boring or downright weird have genuine importance.
School boards, for example, suffer consistently from low public participation. Indeed, many of their responsibilities, like setting budgets and negotiating with teachers unions, seem dry. But they also have final say in important education policies and on matters that are truly life or death, like whether to allow school staff to carry guns.
Or, take the position of coroner, which is an elected office in 1,600 counties. A year-long investigation led by ProPublica found that many coroners have no medical qualifications whatsoever, even though they’re tasked with determining whether a death is a homicide, suicide, accident, or the result of natural causes. This lack of expertise has consequences for families who want closure on the death of a loved one, and for the criminal justice system, which relies on coroner reports to determine the fates of the accused.
While the specific offices and rules for campaigns vary from state to state, the general structure is more or less the same across the country. Generation Progress, an arm of the liberal Center for American Progress, has a helpful overview of the types of offices that could use your commitment to finding common ground on issues that affect our daily lives.
Where Do I Start?
A number of organizations across the political spectrum are dedicated to helping people run for office, whether by conducting campaign trainings or providing funding. Below are a few good resources for anyone considering a run:
- Run for Something: Trains and mentors progressive millennials running for local office for the first or second time
- Emily’s List: Trains and funds pro-choice Democratic women for federal, state, and local office
- Rise to Run: Trains high school girls and college-age women to run for office
- Higher Heights for America: Funds progressive black women to run for federal, state, and local office
- American Majority: Trains conservative candidates for local office, as well as activists, community leaders, and other concerned citizens
- Maggie’s List: Funds conservative women running for federal office
- GOPAC: Coaches Republican candidates and campaign professionals
- Maverick PAC: Funds center-right millennials running for federal office
- She Should Run: Offers resources for women who want to run for office
- Veterans Campaign: Runs campaign trainings for veterans
Voter turnout in the U.S. is lower than in most other developed countries, but a new, energetic wave of candidates may be changing that. As more and more Americans are demonstrating, anyone can run and, with the right resources, have a shot at winning.
Should You Run?: Amanda Litman, founder of Run for Something, says yes. Her book has this handy flowchart to help you decide how to get involved in the political system – via Run for Something: A Real-Talk Guide to Fixing the System Yourself
A How-To Guide: How many votes do you need to win that school board seat? How do you raise money for a state senate race? This guide walks you through the basics – via NPR
The Rookies: These profiles of five first-time candidates, from a school board in Colorado to the Seattle city council, illustrate the incredible diversity of experiences that propel people to public office – via WNYC
Rage Against the Machine: Party machines have a vise-like grip on politics in places around the country. Here’s what four new candidates learned from navigating the party power structure in New York City – via Citylab
The End of Dynasties: Families used to dominate politics at the state and national levels (think Bushes, Cheneys, Kennedys). Is that era coming to an end? – via Vox
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This article originally appeared in the December 1, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.
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