Years ago in a relatively small town, a failed board election campaign was ultimately lost by the candidate I worked for, but it taught me some fundamental lessons about the political process. Even at that level, the lessons mirrored lessons I had learned years before as a failed candidate for high school student council president. These lessons seem even more important in the face of Voter ID laws, Citizens United, and McCutcheon v FEC. Money can be a menace, but ignorance of the process can be just as detrimental.
After watching my friend unsuccessfully compete for the school board seat, he had apparently learned something the second time around when he decided to schedule a meeting with the head of the Ministerial Council.
What he did not practice the first time around is the law of first friends. The whole entourage thing that some celebs have going is also a necessity in electoral politics. If you cannot show that you have friends that will hang with you, it is hard to convince groups to support you. The first meeting with the Ministerial Council, my friend called at the last minute to ask if I would accompany him. He said frantically, “We’re meeting at a restaurant”. They asked if I had anyone to bring with me. I panicked and said your name.” The meeting went well, but the pastors in attendance wondered aloud why our pastor was not a member of the council. Needless to say, the next meeting included our pastor.
The Power of People Knowing You
The naive may think that politics is a simple matter of getting your name on the ballot. “It’s who you know,” they may say. My friend knew how to get on the ballot. But, his miscalculation was what it took to get voters to select his name as opposed to others. “It’s not just about who you know, but it’s also about who knows you.” Another lesson, he learned the hard way.
The second time around, his campaign was top-to-bottom about creating a compelling narrative to inform constituents. He pulled his family along on trips to local churches, soul food restaurants, school PTA meetings, and more. He became a master of striking up conversations with strangers.
The Mechanism of Campaigning
My friend’s run at the school board post was much more methodical the second time around. I had learned the lessons of creating a campaign mechanism as a high school senior. I was well-known in my school of about 1000 students, but being well-known does not make a campaign that requires action.
One morning a couple of days prior to the election, I arrived to school and was greeted at the door by my two challengers each with their own tables handing out ice cream to the student body. It was if I had turned to stone as I watched voters streaming to their tables accepting treats. I have often reflected on that moment as my career has progressed. Never again will I rely on organic development when it matters. I will find ways to connect with people I do not know, and I will never underestimate the power of a small cup of ice cream.
The Reality of Politics
With the fluster around money, the truth can be lost that voters want to be informed and are capable of voting their conscience. It is true that many vote on ideals or out of resistance to a candidate. My friend’s bid for school board was fraught with expenses from filing fees to yard signs to personal donations to charities. Hosting fundraisers was a legitimate support activity. Yet, he was not the pick of the party. It was not just money he was up against. It was an institutional structure.
Even more striking is the change that happens when a voter or a political wannabe comprehends the political entity itself. More than just how a bill becomes a law, how certain individuals in certain positions balance power and protect individual liberties.
At the conclusion of his campaign, my friend notified me that the party so admired his campaign that he had been appointed to another non-elected board position in the city. On that board, he rose to represent the city in national venues.
My failed student council bid resulted in focused work on the class level, and I was invited by the class president to get involved. Most notably, I worked to craft an awareness campaign for a multi-campus radio competition.
From where I sit, both these failures turned successes were accomplished through knowledge of the system, who knew us, but also through someone who was willing to appoint us to important tasks. Our requirement was to make ourselves a target for appointment.