In this polarizing political climate, there's been a steep increase in feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Feelings of anxiety, conflict between friends and family and even depression, anger and violence leave many at a loss. But if you're passionate about change, you can take that feeling of powerlessness and shift it into empowerment.
On May 16, Deschutes County will hold elections to fill seats in a number of areas, including the Bend-La Pine, Redmond, Central Oregon Community College (COCC) and Sisters School Districts; Park & Recreation District positions in Bend, La Pine, Redmond and Sisters; Deschutes Public Library District positions; Rural Fire Protection Districts; Sanitary/Sewer Districts and local Water Districts. It's an opportunity to create an impact on a local level. Here's how to get started.
Running an election campaign is a daunting, ever consuming task, no matter how small the seat. At one point, every successful candidate has faced this challenge and more than likely lost. "Been there, done that," says Judy Stiegler, who served in the Oregon House of Representatives from 2009 to 2011. Stiegler, now a political science professor at COCC, laughs as she recounts the races she's run, both successfully and unsuccessfully. "You have to have passion to get you through the tough times... because there will be many."
To narrow down your options, look for common themes of interest. Does public education or parks make you tick? Expansion of services or planning? Chances are, there's a public office or committee position for it. Once identified, articulating your message is just as important as the passion. Stiegler states, "People are going to ask...why are you doing this? And you need to know why. You have to have a reason, a rationale in wanting to do that job." Also note, the higher profile the role, the more work it's going to be.
Gena Goodman-Campbell, the Democratic party's local candidate for last year's Oregon's House of Representative seat, credits her boots-on-the-ground attitude to getting her name out there. "I was surprised at how much I liked it," she says. "It gave me an opportunity to connect with voters, get my name out there, and listen to what they had to say. People want to see people stepping up...especially women and the younger generation." Amassing a crew of volunteers to get your name out there is crucial for widespread reach. "Particularly for local races," says Stiegler, "you can't beat feet on the street."
Jennifer Stephens, Rep. Knute Buehler's campaign manager for both the 2014 and 2016 races, also credits his win to door knocking and his ability to engage with voters. She notes, "Knute still recalls many of the interactions he had with voters while on the campaign trail when a specific issue comes up. That's how important those interactions were."
Goodman-Campbell urges candidates to listen to voters and then take a stand on an issue. "People want to know you have strong positions even if they don't agree," she says. "They will trust you more once they see you have strong values and provide solutions for their issues." Stiegler also emphasizes not to discredit each vote you gain. "I can tell you personally that each vote counts," she says. When she ran in 2004, she lost her race by a mere 584 votes.
Even the most volunteer-driven campaigns need funding. Both Stiegler and Goodman-Campbell note that fundraising was the least enjoyable and most daunting part of their endeavors. "You're essentially cold-calling someone," Stiegler remarks. "But if you stick to your message, and know your objective, then it gets a lot easier. If you say, 'Hi I'm Judy, and I'm running for this office and this is what I think I can do, and I need your support to do it,' it is incredible how far you will go. You just need to ask." When Stiegler first first ran in 2004, she comments, "It was the most expensive house race in the history of Oregon. Each side spent $250,000."
For comparison, last year, Rep. Buehler, a Republican, spent $1.1 million. Goodman-Campbell, who garnered 47.77 percent of the vote to Rep. Buehler's 51.92 percent, was outspent two to one. She says, "I'm curious whether or not it comes down to a numbers game. I didn't realize that the reality of our system is that you have to ask everyone for money...because it all adds up." She recalls that once she stopped resisting that fact, she started going out and connecting with voters. "It became easier to ask and I got better at it." Toward the end, Goodman- Campbell's funding and name recognition soared and she ended up losing by just 1,683 votes. Not bad for a 33-year old-candidate who didn't know she was going to run until a few months before the election. Had she entered the race earlier, the outcome may have been different.
Rep. Buehler's campaign gleamed like a well-oiled machine, and Stephens credits this to his willingness to not only door knock and fundraise but engage with users through social media. "Knute is constantly posting on social media and engaging with his voters," she says, "and I can personally say that he reads each and every comment on there to try and listen to what voters are telling him." A strong social media campaign exposes candidates to a reach beyond the traditional scope of just boots on the ground. If savvy, candidates can take advantage to see what is trending and hop on hot button issues.
Stiegler agrees, but also emphasizes the need for substance, especially in this changing political climate. She observes, "Well, I think people talk about the nastiness of campaigning today like it's a new thing but if we go back into our history, we can see that's always been prevalent. We're people. It's the human aspect of campaigning." She urges candidates to turn to depth rather than "buzz words that catch people's interest." Substance over clickbait.
She continues, "It can be hard when things get heated and bubble up to the surface. But I think we owe the voter some substance. They deserve to know more than catch phrases." Her guess is that the local campaigns will only become more hotly contested. She laughs, adding, "If you want to see a real boring race, then run for a judge position. People complained that nothing happened, but we had strict moral guidelines."
And If at First you Don't Succeed...
Keep trying. Failure is just a right of passage, and as Stephens says, "Although it's a lot of hard work, everyone who's interested, should experience an election campaign first hand, at least once." Goodman-Campbell notes that the experience was life changing and that she learned many life lessons. One being, "That I had more energy and was more capable of hard work than I thought. That I was able to do it." Stiegler recalls a time when people asked her why she keeps putting herself through the wringer. It's the passion that pulls you through." She laughs, "It's like I told my son when we were hiking and he was complaining about it, saying it was hard. I said "You just got to put one foot in front of the other, dude. One step at a time."
To file a candidacy for the May 16 District election, file a declaration or petition at the Deschutes County Clerk's Office by March 16.
Emerge Oregon is hosting a one day compact training this Saturday to learn the key components of running a successful campaign.
Emerge Oregon helps women leaders develop the tools to win public office. Whether you want to be the candidate or on the campaign, this training can be invaluable in helping you prepare a successful run for office. Space is limited, tickets are $40 per person