You really, really don’t want to run for public office
Look, I get it. When Republicans lose they dress up in funny hats and write bizarre explanations for how they aren’t racist. When Democrats lose we point shotguns at each other in our underwear on our own front lawns.
It’s just one of those things. We’re going to fight for a while because as crummy as it is to stick knives in our own, it feels better than losing an election we won by 3 million votes. Fine.
So we’re going to fight about what’s Best Liberal Twitter and so forth. For example, this excellent piece isn’t a weary lament by a former Clinton staffer who gave her life and livelihood for a great stateswoman only to watch the Republic burn down and only now does everyone hit the streets.
Nah, she’s shaming protesters for their hearts being in the right place. Or something.
Similarly, this cool website isn’t a useful tool to figure out the closest federal elections that actually matter, which is a huge deal since about ten percent of congressional districts are even remotely competitive.
Nah, this is encouraging liberals to ignore local elections. You should get involved, and most of all you should run for office. Even Slate says so!
It would be uncharitable to suggest that all of this shade is being thrown around by a bunch of professional Democrats jockeying for what limited publicity we can get during a time where we’re all extremely bored and have very little to do. But it’s mostly accurate.
Hi. I am a Democratic opposition researcher. I specialize in telling truths that people find unpleasant and upsetting. I’m here to help.
I can’t tell you whether you should run for office. That’s between you, your god and your therapist.
But you don’t want to. And if you do, it’s going to be one of the most painful experiences of your life, right up there with divorce, childbirth and Adam Sandler movies.
Yes, many consultants and party recruiters gloss over this detail, at least until contracts are signed. But like buying a house, running for office can lead to misery and financial ruin if you don’t think about important details beforehand.
I’m not going to tell you not to run for office. But for everyone’s sake (including mine if I wind up working for you), consider these unpleasant facts liberal activists and partisans leave out:
In the best case scenario, elected office is still mostly infuriating and pointless
I have a good friend who’s a state legislator. She’s accomplished more, and helped more real people, than most U.S. Senators and Representatives. She is a tireless advocate and one of about half a dozen politicians I actually admire, as opposed to tolerating so they possibly pay me money. She’s a passionate Democrat, and Democrats have the majority in her chamber.
She often hates her job and wonders if she even still wants to do it.
See, her chamber leader is currently in an ego contest with the governor, so nothing has happened in state government for the past two years. Not nothing as in her favorite bill hasn’t passed. I mean NOTHING. Nothing happens. The legislature barely even shows up on session days because nothing is going to happen and they’d rather, like, play with their kids or something. There are two people in the world who can do anything about this, and they are terrible, revolting humans beyond anyone’s ability to penalize let alone influence.
This is a lot closer to the median legislative experience than a shocking outlier than anyone wants to admit.
There are basically two scenarios for a legislature: the relevant parties have strong leadership that knows what they’re doing, or weak leadership that couldn’t find their own genitals with a flashlight and a map.
The problem is, strong leaders are often just as bad as weak incompetent ones for getting anything done. Strong leaders prioritize being in charge over getting anything done. Sometimes this has beneficial side effects, like when historically skilled, experienced and yes powerful Democratic leaders in Congress passed the Affordable Care Act.
But we also don’t talk a lot about how Democratic leadership in the House has hollowed out, and recruitment has thinned out, because Nancy Pelosi is going to stay there as long as she wants and why stick around when there’s nowhere to rise? Why do anything?
And most Democratic leaders are not as smart, experienced or ruthless as Pelosi.
In the absolute best case scenario, in the highest offices, when your party holds a majority and all of those other things cable news thinks are good for your party of preference, you aren’t going to be happy.
And I have some bad news for aspirants to local office especially:
There’s a reason no one cares about local offices
There’s a vacant lot in a neighborhood I used to live in. A developer was going to build condos on it, went bankrupt in the Great Recession, yada yada yada.
Question: should a three story condo building be built on that ugly vacant lot, or a five story one?
No, I’m not asking your opinion. I’m sure you have some deeply thought out take on urban density.
I’m asking if you want to hear other people yell at you about their extra special and very deeply important opinions on that vacant lot.
Welcome to local office. This is your life every day, and twice on Sundays. Constituents have more time to yell at you on Sundays.
I tell clients that basically two things that local officeholders do matter in elections: property tax hikes and voting to raise their own pay. Both high property taxes and high pay for elected officials are, incidentally, great policies, but that’s for another time.
The fact is you utterly do not care about what local offices do. If you do, then you’re already composing a reply to this piece on why I’m a dumb jerk so you’re not even reading this paragraph.
Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of things local offices do:
Screw with zoning
That’s it! The thing most people miss about local office is that these things are not what you put up with to get the real stuff done. That is literally the stuff you do. In fact the biggest problem with most local governments is that they get so bummed out and/or bored by paying the bills (with taxes) or screwing with zoning (which is tedious) that they come up with other stuff to do instead. Then the bills aren’t paid and then everyone is yelling at each other, but strangely not over paying bills, but rather additional stuff, because whining about tax breaks for corporations and graduated income taxes is more fun than raising goddamn property taxes to pay the goddamn bills.
Aha, but what about policing? Black Lives Matter! Indeed they do. But, funny thing: that’s still about paying bills. There are two ways to deal with cops who murder black children: wait for the feds to put said cops in jail, or screw with the cops’ money via their collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The problem with people empowered to summarily execute passersby isn’t their guns. It’s the inability to fire them. So yes, it all comes down to paying bills here too, even if that also means police threatening to murder you on their anonymous blogs.
Again, this is the part where you protest that you have a great deal of very important opinions on land use and taxation. Ima let you finish, but go back to my example. This isn’t about your opinions. It’s about the angry seniors and bored college kooks (or anonymous cops possibly murdering you) and their opinions.
This is your life, local politician. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Still with me? Wow, I’m seriously impressed. You probably think I’ve covered the worst parts of running for office.
Except we haven’t discussed, you know, actually running for office. Those who have tears, prepare to shed them, and read on:
Running for office is literally just begging people for money
If you’re a Wire fan you can skip this part and just re-watch the Carcetti call time scene. In fact, go watch it anyway. It’s a great scene and you don’t need to know anything about the series to understand it.
Back? So here’s the truth: that’s actually more fun than the reality of running for office. Real candidates don’t get their preferred pornography on the wall, because that’s a distraction from making more calls.
Here’s the thing: your policies don’t matter when you’re a candidate. In fact your staff and consultants will almost certainly ignore everything you say and your official positions will have nothing to do with what you think.
Nor do town halls or coffees or whatever. Statistically speaking, candidates interacting with real voters is disastrous, and an invitation to get monstered by James O’Keefe or some other asshole. We let you do it sometimes because we haven’t yet figured out how to outsource that part of campaigns to robots.
Running for office is just sitting in a room, a bare, extremely boring room to prevent you from looking at or thinking about anything else. And you call someone you’ve never heard of before. On the one percent chance that the person picks up, you will read off of a sheet and pretend to care about things the person cares about.
And then you will ask for a positively disgusting amount of money, which the person will not like at all, and will often insult you and hang up.
If they do not hang up, you will repeat your request, and if they continue to refuse you will ask for a smaller amount. You will repeat this until they either agree to send money or hang up on you.
And then you will demand that they send the check today. In higher profile races you’ll hand this part off to an underpaid staffer because it’s the most miserable part of the call, but hey, you’re running for local office like an American progressive hero, so it’s just you and your manager glaring at you in this room.
You will do this for at least twenty hours a week, regardless of your day job, your family or your will to live. You’ll do it until that’s all you dream about. You’ll do it until you wish you never thought of running for office and want to strangle everyone who said you should do it.
And then you’ll do it some more. You’ll look forward to Election Day, not because you might win, but because you won’t have to do any more call time.
And then if you win, the day after Election Day you will make more calls.
I imagine you Have Questions about this process. Let me answer most of them up front: yes, god, this is a terrible way to run a democracy, even a bizarre pseudo-democracy with slaver welfare as we have in America. It’s basically like people sat down and did their best to come up with the one way to guarantee the worst possible results no matter who wins. We should absolutely have publicly financed campaigns like basically every other developed country on Earth does.
Now shut the hell up and get back in the call room.
I’m doing you a huge favor explaining this to you in advance. Usually you’ll hear from media and mail consultants explaining why it is so deathly important you raise all of the monies. Incidentally, media and mail consultants are paid on commission, so the more you spend on TV ads and mail the more they make. Of course, that has no influence at all on their advice to you. They have only your best interests at heart.
Anyway your pollster will probably ignore you because poll numbers are either alarming or provide false reassurance to non-specialists. You’ll probably never hear from your opposition researcher, which is a shame: we’re all really quite nice.
But none of us have any sympathy for you. Our paychecks depend on you sitting your ass in that room and dialing until your fingers bleed. And the process is very similar to the one by which we continue to secure clients: a lot of disappointing phone calls and people berating us and saying no. So we totally understand what you’re going through, and that’s exactly why we don’t care.
I can’t tell you whether you should run for office. Hell, most of what I thought I knew about how voters think was proven disastrously wrong last November, me and every other Democratic consultant. So don’t listen to any of us about what you should do.
And I’m not telling you not to run. A good friend of mine is preparing to run in a competitive congressional district. When he asked me about it, I told him it was a terrible idea. I told him everything I’m telling you now. I got into more prosaic stuff, like the probable death threats to his wife on Twitter.
But I didn’t tell him not to run. I just asked him to listen. He’s a smart guy, and now he knows a lot more about what nobody says when they urge you to go out and get involved.
I can’t tell you whether or not to run, but I do know facts. And the fact is you are going to really hate running for office. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you.
Don’t take my word for it. Look at what other candidates have said! Talk to other candidates. If any of them say differently, come back here and explain how wrong I am. I will listen with good cheer.
But when someone tells you to jump without saying how far you’re going to fall afterwards, there’s nothing wrong with taking a good look down first.