I Managed A Municipal Election Campaign And it Almost Destroyed My Faith in Democracy

I’ve always firmly believed that the best way to see real democratic change is to convince awesome people to put aside their careers in the private sector for a little while and run for office.
Publish date:
September 16, 2014

Mid-term elections are coming up quickly for Americans, which means this is as good a time as any to talk about democracy. As a younger lady, I always had a naïve optimism when it came to the idea of running for office. We live in a land of liberty -- anyone can grow up to hold office! Good ideas are more important than corporate support! In the end, the best person to represent the will of the people will win!

I know many of you are shaking your heads already. As we all know, running for office (especially fairly high office) requires a load of money, support for a lot of groups that the candidate may have to compromise his or her ideals for, and a whole lot of political machinery. I watched "Scandal" and "House of Cards" -- I know how it is.

And as a result, I think we end up with a lot of politicians who are either inclined to run because they have power-hungry personalities and not a lot of great ideas, or decent folks who become so afraid of voting for policies that don’t mesh with what their financial supporters want, that they end up losing all of their integrity. So, more often than not we end up holding our noses and voting for the person who sucks the least, rather than being able to support someone who truly represents what we want for the future of our town, state, or country.

But it’s not that way for municipal grass-roots politics, right?

I’ve always firmly believed that the best way to see real democratic change is to convince awesome people to put aside their careers in the private sector for a little while and run for office. I live in a fairly large Canadian city and we have an absolutely fantastic mayor (no, I don’t live in Toronto, I’m not talking about Rob Ford) -- he ran seemingly out of the blue five years ago and even though he was a university professor and not a career politician, he managed to beat out a prominent city councilor and a popular TV newswoman to get the job. While he did have a very organized campaign behind him (in retrospect, much more organized than the casual observer would have realized), watching him win really reinstated that feeling that democracy was for everyone, that any solid-minded citizen can be a public official. So when the next municipal election cycle came around four years later, I decided to step into the ring. Sort of.

You know the joke about not being able to be elected as the city dogcatcher? Well, I got involved managing a campaign for a position that’s almost as obscure: public school trustee. Some friends and I were talking about how the school board’s trustees were a gang of out-of-touch incumbents who had been in their positions for years -- long after they had any personal stake in the system. Meanwhile, a “watchdog” group of candidates were ramping up to run against those incumbents, though their tone was pretty negative and as parents we were concerned that a combo of grumpy incumbents and the nasty watchdogs who had been criticizing them for years would make for a wholly dysfunctional board that would do nothing to help our kids’ already overstressed and underfunded schools. So we started looking at which districts we might be able to run in.

I chickened out, but my friend (who I’ll just refer to as “the Candidate”) gave a resounding “Why not?” and managed to collect the requisite signatures to run the day before she had to file her papers. Don’t get me wrong, she took the decision to run seriously and committed to the process, but none of us had any idea what we were getting into -- we figured that since she was running for a fairly ignored position we just needed to print off some fliers and knock on a few doors to get the word out -- and embracing that spirit that democracy was for everyone, she went for it. I was her official “agent” according to her filing papers and ended up co-managing the campaign.

Oh, we were so naïve.

Despite the general lack of interest in the school trustee race by the public (the city also reelected the mayor and voted in city councilors in the same election), the Candidate actually got a fair bit of attention and due to the pot-stirring ways of the watchdog candidates, it was an unexpectedly hot race. We kept our eye on social media -- people were asking who she was, why didn’t she have a website yet, why hadn’t she announced her intention to run months before like her opponents had. People found out she was interested in social media and writing and dismissed her as a “mommy blogger.” They told her she didn’t have a right to run because she wasn’t part of the political scene. There was no "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" narrative where she was painted as a concerned single mom just wanting the best for her kid.

Basically, they told her that as a nobody who hadn’t spent years schmoozing with politicos, she didn’t have a right to be part of the authority that would represent her community in her son’s school system.

Meanwhile as the agent and her biggest cheerleader, I personally got tweets from people who may or may not have been associated with our opponents’ campaigns telling me that I was a liar, a coward, a loser, a bitch, a mean girl, a troll, stupid, and delusional. A lot of it was sexist, and as a woman it didn’t always feel safe.

Let me put it this way: I am a full-time freelance writer for a number of print and online publications who sometimes writes about feminism, and I have never experienced the kind of online vitriol that I did managing a public school trustee campaign in a mid-sized Canadian city. If the school trustee people were getting this kind of hate, I can’t even imagine what the mayor, members of Congress, senators, and the President gets.

Actually, I can. And that’s the problem. I look at doctored pictures of Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton or even Sarah Palin that get passed around as memes -- the focus is so often on their physical appearance, their sexuality (or perceived lack of), their personal lives. I understand why trying to get a grip on a politician’s personal character is fair game, but lines are crossed more than most of us would like to admit. Public service is difficult -- why do we make it so much harder by tearing apart the people who are brave enough to run for office?

But it’s not all so bleak. Here’s what I did take away from my brief career as an amateur campaign manager: while you technically can run for office, if all you have is the required signatures and the necessary fee, you’re unlikely to win. But if you have a thick enough skin, some organizational skills, and are able to amass a team of likeminded people, at the very least you can add to the conversation, which is still a valuable contribution. We came in third out of three candidates, but my Candidate did get a significant number of votes -- thousands of people chose her to represent them on the public school board of trustees. And even though the watchdog candidate won, she seemed to be listening to some of our talking points and even incorporated them into her platform as the campaign went along (and we were right, by the way -- the animosity between the watchdogs who won and the incumbents who ended up keeping their seats on the board has rendered the body completely dysfunctional).

I also got to spend time with some amazing women, many of them with considerable behind-the-scenes political experience, who believe in the power of democracy. If this article hasn’t totally put you off the idea of running and like me you have secret dreams of one day running for city councilor or something, try volunteering on a veteran politician’s campaign team, put together a like-minded group of friends to start organizing with you, or get involved in an organization like Emily’s List, a group that helps get pro-choice Democratic women elected to office.

But maybe even more importantly, if you’re a regular citizen with no political aspirations, at the very least, stop dragging down those who do step up and do their duty. Disagree with policy -- that’s the citizen’s job in a democracy -- but stop it with the ugly memes, the personal attacks, the online trolling, and the snide judgment. If we want to fix the deadlock, grandstanding, and pandering that we see from so many politicians who probably aren’t in it for the right reasons, we need to give well-meaning, passionate candidates hope that running for and holding office won’t be a total nightmare.