Monday, July 1, 2013

The Ultimate Adventure, Part 1: Running for Office (Written January 2013)

I adore traveling, and my life seems incomplete without it. But some adventures happen at home, too. Last year I gathered up all of my courage and so-called skills and ran in my first citywide race for San Francisco Community College Board. To say that this was an adventure is an understatement. I announced my candidacy more than a year before the election and spent the remaining time doing all of the things one is supposed to do when running for office, which is mostly politicking. And raising money. More on that later. Now, as a policy person, I am often turned off by the politics of politics. That's not to say that there weren't fun moments. In fact, much of it was a pretty good experience, such as meeting so many amazing people, from politicians to average citizens trying to get their voices heard, and learning so much about the inner workings of a higher education system I thought I understood. I am also extremely grateful for all of the people and organizations who took a chance on me—a first-time candidate—with their endorsements, and who believed in me enough to write a check, make phone calls, hold signs, and support me through the entire process, which is not unlike a very long ride on an old, rickety roller coaster. One that is mostly controlled by an Old Boys Network (although thanks to the work of too many people to list here this is improving and more women are being allowed and afforded access).

Politics is a special kind of crazy here in San Francisco. A candidate has to meet with everyone. And by everyone, I mean not only other elected officials whose support you'd like to have, but also at least one leader of Every. Single. Organization in the city. San Francisco is a very politically active city, which is a great thing. But it also means that there are clubs and organizations and activist groups not only for every district (there are 11) but also for many neighborhoods, every special interest group you can imagine, and some special interest groups you'd never imagine. You have to have coffee with everyone. Needless to say, I drank A LOT of coffee during those 13 months—maybe with 60 to 80 people. To be sure, I'm definitely not complaining, as I made many new friends and learned so much about some really great organizations and clubs. But it is challenging for a schedule that already squeezes in a full-time job and part-time teaching. Oh, and did I mention that I was planning my wedding at the same time? On more than one occasion (OK, maybe several times a day) I wondered how people had the stamina to run. I also wondered why we have a political system that is so difficult for an average person to navigate.  

During that time, candidates are also expected to fill out questionnaires for each club or organization’s PAC (Political Action Committee, often the arm of an organization that deals with political endorsements). These questionnaires range from one page (rare) to more than 15 pages. And each questionnaire is worded just differently enough so that cutting and pasting is difficult. I filled out approximately 25 questionnaires (some organizations are incredibly considerate and use the DCCC[1] questionnaire rather than have the candidate complete an additional one). My idea, in case anyone is interested, is to have one [potentially very long] questionnaire on which  all Party clubs collaborate that contains all of the most common questions (who are you, what are you running for, why are you running, what do you want to do, etc.). Then each club can add one to two additional questions that are relevant to the specific club. Not only will this make the process easier for an average person to engage in the political process, but it will also be far more transparent as everyone can see the responses for every organization’s questions since they’re all on one form. I see it as a win-win.

Just when I thought the most time-consuming part had to be over, I was introduced to what we in crazypoliticsland call "the endorsement phase." This is when all candidates for all offices go in front of all endorsing clubs and organizations to give their schpeel for why the club or organization should endorse that candidate (or proposition position). Sounds easy, right? Well, considering that there are no fewer than 45 groups we're talking about, this meant multiple endorsement meetings every night and most weekend afternoons. In fact, there were often overlapping meetings at the same exact time in various areas of the city. If there ever was a time to have a clone it's during the endorsement phase, and I’m entirely unsure how anyone with a family is able to properly participate in the political process. On most nights I was lucky to get myself fed; I couldn’t imagine doing that in a situation where I was responsible for getting a child fed.

I'll take this moment to publicly write what I've been talking about since then: I strongly recommend that the Democratic Party convene all of its clubs and host one (or maybe two) endorsement nights, kind of like a speed dating process in which every club is in a different room of the same building and candidates rotate among rooms. Each candidate will have his or her normal two to five minutes to talk (presumably the representatives would have already read the endorsement questionnaire) and then move on to the next room/club. There is an argument that having individual meetings forces candidates to go to parts of the city that are often ignored or where the club is located. I understand and respect this argument, which is why these speed dating-types of endorsement meetings could be broken up into maybe two to four meetings in locations across the city. That would still be far more efficient than the current process of scheduling endorsement meetings on top of each other and hoping that candidates can manage to be in two or three different places at once.

I have many feelings about the endorsement process. From a personal perspective, it was a great experience to hear so many other candidates’ backgrounds and platforms and be able to answer questions of each organization on the spot. But I was also disappointed in the process itself. For many of these clubs and organizations, the decisions had already been made long before candidates walked in the door, and the decisions were made based not necessarily on who might be the best candidate, but sometimes on who owed whom something and who had the longest (or the most seemingly beneficial) relationships. At one club the PAC recommendations were made before they even heard from anyone, even on a questionnaire! I always knew this was part of politics, but to see it up close and personal in such a way made me lose a little bit of respect for certain organizations as well as the process itself. The other problem that I see with some of the endorsement processes was the procedure for voting. For many clubs and organizations, an endorsement is granted if a candidate gets X percent of votes from its PAC members. But PAC members aren’t required to be present the entire day, so some may come and hear a few candidates and some may come and here all of the candidates and some may not come at all. So people are voting based on something other than what the candidate has to say and responses to that PAC’s questions.

Another factor on which some base their endorsement decisions is a candidate’s fundraising. And, to be honest, the fundraising is a hugely important component of any campaign. Without funds, a candidate cannot get any literature to hand out or to mail. No window signs. No flyers. No help with the campaign outside of the kindness of volunteers. Without funds, a campaign is essentially dead on arrival. Even if you’re the best candidate in the world, without a way to get that information out to all the voters, they won’t know it. Even faced with that reality, I still find the emphasis put on fundraising (and the need for such large amounts of money in politics) physically nauseating. We can joke that only in San Francisco would someone need to raise $50K to $200K for a college or school board race, but it’s not a joke. And it’s not only in San Francisco. The amount of money in politics is and should be sickening to anyone paying attention. I realize that I alone will not change the system, but I am very proud and supportive of those who I know are talking about and working on this issue at the local, state, and national levels.

I cannot lie, the fundraising part was really challenging for me for a lot of reasons. For one thing, I’ve never been comfortable asking anyone for money, especially for myself!! Even after my fabulous Emerge California training, I have a hard time. For another thing, the vast majority of people in my life and who I know don’t have a lot of discretionary income, nor are most politically active. To add to my challenge, considering that I was a first-time candidate with little name recognition, my network wasn’t, shall we say, large (and by that I mean it was pretty skimpy). It was not my least favorite part of the process, but it was definitely nowhere near my favorite part. And I can easily see why the fundraising piece keeps many good people—good women—from running for office.

Despite my frustrations with certain aspects of the process, it was indeed a learning experience. And despite my lack of name recognition and the fact that I raised among the least amount of money, I am incredibly proud that I received so many endorsements from across the San Francisco political spectrum and I came within 600 votes of winning (it was so close I was still checking the daily counts more than a week later. From Maui.). Many people are asking me if I’m going to run again. I would very much like to, although I have a little while before I have to make a decision. J

Ps: I can’t very well write anything about my running for office without mentioning my amazing campaign consultant (and equally amazing friend), Marjan Philhour. She talked me off a ledge on almost a daily basis and I am incredibly thankful for her.

[1] The DCCC stands for Democratic County Central Committee, which is the official Democratic Party leadership at the county level. 


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