Jeff Ward: Don't Just Throw the Rascals Out! Replace Them!
Here are six steps to winning a local elected office.
In April, we discussed the most effective ways of fighting city hall. Those strategies included coming prepared, following Robert’s Rules, and sticking to your game plan as well as the facts. The gotcha game, which is most certainly in vogue, almost never works.
In May, we discussed the city hall that truly needed fighting: DuPage County. Between Sheriff John Zaruba’s ride alongs, County Board Chair Dan Cronin’s sister’s patronage plum, and a judge who thinks it’s appropriate to aim an SUV at a 13-year-old jogger, one could certainly argue that it’s a target-rich environment.
But now it’s June, and inspired by a Downers Grove Patch Dan F. post-column comment, we’re gonna talk about what might well be the most effective way of changing local government: running for office yourself!
Because you can go ahead and align yourself with congressional nitwits like Joe Walsh until you’re blue in the face, but the truth is, unless you’re one of the 1 percent, those local taxing bodies will always take a far bigger chunk of your change than Washington ever will.
So while the scary black president has actually cut government spending and federal taxes, that recent bi-annual bill made you painfully aware that your property taxes are headed to the stratosphere. And as long as you insist upon re-electing those same old folks, that steep ascent ain’t about to change anytime soon.
To be clear, we’re only talking about anything below county chair, because reader Dan was right. Once you aspire to those loftier heights or higher, you either have to be a dynamic fundraiser or have the benefit of a healthy bank account.
But when it comes to the positions of precinct committeeman through county commissioner, I’ve seen a plethora of enterprising contenders rack up impressive victories without spending a penny of their own money.
And here’s how they did it:
1. Attend those township party meeting(s). Most candidates lose the race before they even start because they have no idea how important political infrastructure is. In these nascent days of abject voter apathy, you have to have troops who are willing to knock on doors, and that process always starts with the precinct committeemen.
No matter how small your campaign, you need an organization!
Local races often come down to a two-figure vote difference, so just one enterprising PC can mean the difference between a victory party and a concession speech.
Even if you’re facing off against the most dyed-in-the-wool incumbent, I guarantee you, there will be PCs who are looking for a change. Funny thing about incumbents—they tend to take those all-important worker bees for granted, which only opens the door for you to step right in.
2. Get your nominating petitions right. Rest assured, a savvy challenger will go over your nominating petitions with a fine-toothed comb. Since disqualifying your opponent is the easiest way to win, it happens all the time.
Most local elected offices don’t require many signatures, but no matter what the number is, your best defense against a challenge is to come in with four times that amount. For example, a Republican DuPage County Board candidate must currently come up with 189 valid voter signatures. The smart ones turned in 750.
As far as other petition particulars, it is the mission of each and every county clerk’s office to encourage folks to run and keep them on the ballot. If you have doubts, ask for help.
Honestly, if you can’t get your nominating petitions right, why the heck would anyone want to vote for you anyway?
3. Ya gotta have a message. If your favorite line is “I’m not the other guy,” then you will lose. Character assassination may work on the big stage, but it falls flat locally. Carefully craft your message and stick to it.
When state. Sen. Chris Lauzen swept to a landslide victory in the Kane County GOP chairman primary, his message was straight, simple and succinct; “Freeze the county property tax levy, treat people with respect, and honest, competent administration through innovation and austerity.”
With that amazing instrument we call the Internet, getting your message out has never been easier.
4. If you don’t have the money, then you better have the time. To quote a good political friend of mine, “Your time is more valuable than your money, because you can never get it back!”
Does having heavy campaign coffers help? You bet it does. But it isn’t everything. Perennial GOP candidate Jim Oberweis has spent well over $6 million to finally get a shot at the Illinois State Senate.
Talk about a lousy return on your investment.
You really don’t need cash to cover the basics. Knock on doors. Attend a VFW fish fry. Host a fundraiser for another candidate. Knock on doors. Attend every political function you can think of. Knock on doors. Challenge your opponent to a debate. Engage the community. Go to every township meeting.
Oh! And did I say knock on doors?
5. Engage the press. From personal experience, I can tell that very few local candidates ever figure this one out. Understaffed newspapers are dying for the stories to come to them.
Forget the press releases! We just make fun of them. Considering our email addresses accompany every piece of prose, coming up with a master reporter/columnist list is a piece of cake. Keep them just as informed as you would a business colleague. Make it personal. A little humor never hurts, either.
Call a reporter! Make time to talk to a columnist. Like anything else in this life, developing good press relationships takes time, but, trust me, the effort will turn out to be well worth your while.
Conversely, check your ego at the door. Do not make the mistake of getting into in a spitting match with someone who buys ink by the barrel. It will not end well for you.
6. It’s a process. Politics is always a marathon and never a sprint. Even if you lose the first round, the experience and ensuing name recognition will be worth their weight in gold when it comes time for round two.
If you do lose, do it with grace. Bitter doesn’t sell very well.
And don’t forget, these smaller gigs just might lead to bigger and better things.
So, there you have it! Money is not necessarily the key to local elections. Whether you’re thinking alderman, mayor or school board, sweat equity is much more important than cash. And if you’re willing to follow these six simple steps, who knows! Someday I may be writing about you!