What does it take to run for public office? I am often asked this question and have put together what I think are some key factors in making such a decision. My perspective is based on years of experience working on the campaigns of others, on my own municipal campaigns and serving as a Councillor, beginning with my first run for a Council seat in 2002 in North Saanich.
Everyone who makes the decision to run for public office does so for their own reasons, a decision that I learned is first, often deeply personal and later, a call to political action. During the women’s movement in the 1960’s, a feminist leader in the United States said that public activism is roused when “the personal becomes political;” in other words, when political action is borne of a personal commitment to help make a positive difference, not only to your community but also to the well-being and quality of life for those around you.
Here is my own list of the characteristics or qualities that I believe it takes to run for public office:
It can be as simple as feeling or caring deeply about the future of your community or about a single issue or challenge, that can guide your decision to get politically involved and run for public office. Passion provides strength and courage to take a risk that you might not otherwise take; your passion may not only motivate and inspire you but can be contagious; others who share your passion will become motivated and inspired to be your best and strongest supporters, believing as you do that you can make a difference.
Grit (or courage) is a big part of the decision to run for public office. Moving from private to public citizen is a significant shift and at some level, can put you squarely outside your comfort zone. No matter who you are, how well prepared you are or what skills you bring, the power of public scrutiny can sometimes be overwhelming. You will be judged, compared and evaluated against a set of public expectations and standards that are inherently subjective. And so it takes unwavering personal strength and a touch of bravery to step up and out into the public arena and run competitively with others for election to public office.
Perhaps this is one of most important characteristics that will lead to your success as both a candidate and an elected representative. The trust you have in your own abilities, qualities and judgment plays a key role in how confident you are about running, getting elected and serving the public. A strong dose of self-confidence can prepare you well to deal with whatever comes your way. If you appear self-confident by trusting your own skills, abilities and judgment, then others will be confident about you too.
How well you know and understand your community and its residents can determine your success or failure as a candidate or as an elected representative. Realizing what matters to you is one thing but learning about what matters to the people you serve is another necessary next step in the process of running and serving. The key word here is “representative;” to ably represent your community, you should learn about it from the ground up. Do your homework, meet and talk with people from all parts of the community, ask questions and listen. If you are armed with good information, then you will be well grounded, always aware of your environment and well prepared to make sound decisions. This is an ongoing process, a work in progress, as it should be.
Your ability to formulate a vision for the future and then articulate it to others will be a key component of what it takes to run for public office. The vision you develop for your candidacy, for your work as an elected representative or for your community can be another key determinant to your success. Vision is the “aspirational description of being able to see, the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination and wisdom.” While this definition may seem a bit lofty, the vision you bring to the process will guide everything you do. Think of your vision as your platform, a part of your rationale for running in the first place. How well it resonates with others can often determine whether or not you are elected.
Your willingness to give your time and energy to something you believe in is the commitment you make to your community when you run for public office. If you are not sincere or authentic, if you have serious doubts or if you are not in it for the long haul, then you must ask yourself if the decision to run is the right one for you. Your commitment will be tested many times during the election campaign and if you are elected, the testing will continue. There will be highs and lows, ups and downs and good and bad experiences that threaten to throw you off course. But if you remain undaunted and purposeful, you will survive the challenges and bumps in the road, learn from them and realize that your commitment is stronger.
At the core of the decision to run for public office is the knowledge that you have a dedicated team that believes in you, that supports you and that is willing to do the volunteer work that makes a successful campaign. Whether your team is made up of family, friends or supporters (or any combination of these), you soon realize that you can’t run a campaign without them. A good campaign team is one that is dependable, dedicated and willing to roll up their sleeves to help you get elected. From placing signs on lawns, to walking miles with you as you door-knock or to being there with big shoulders to lean on when the going gets tough or when you’re feeling fragile (it happens), a good team working with you is invaluable. These team members become an extended family during the course of a campaign, people you look to for advice and guidance along the way. If you can assemble and work with a good team, strong teamwork skills will help to prepare you for the role and job of Council member.
Last, but not least, is humility. Humility has many meanings but in the context of public office, especially at the municipal level, I believe an expression of humility is the ability to focus on others, to respect others’ views and opinions, to practice modesty about one’s own achievements and to come to the work with an open mind. Humility is a lack of arrogance, one’s own “moral compass” that guides relationships and decision-making. Sometimes, to experience failure and defeat is to learn humility; it’s a good and valuable lesson that will serve you well in public life (and in life generally).