Dear Prospective Candidate,
I am very excited to learn of your interest in running for local office! Having myself been involved in politics for several years now, and having run for office in four of those years, I can say with confidence that this should prove to be a very rewarding experience for you.
But first, a word of caution. No matter where you find yourself in your political life, either now or decades from now, don’t ever lose sight of what politics is. It’s not about the campaigns, or the slogans, or the parties, or the interest groups, or the cable news cacophony. All of that is incidental. In its ultimate analysis, politics is about people. Understand people, and you’ll understand politics.
And understand this: in politics you’ll make a lot of false friends, and a lot of real enemies. At least you will if you’re doing it right. But I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve also made a lot of real friends in politics too, and I owe them the world. These are people who donated their time and money and sweat to me with no thought of ever asking anything in return, and these friendships can last a lifetime. You can’t put a price on that.
But you’ll also meet a lot of other people, and it’s best to have a handle on what to expect before you dive in. So, if you’ll indulge me, what follows is a guide to The People You’ll Meet in Politics.
As a candidate, the first people you’ll usually meet are other candidates. You’ll run into them at all kinds of events — like there’s some unwritten circuit that all candidates must travel and intuitively know about — and the candidates will come in all shapes and sizes. For example, you’ll meet “The Crazy Candidates Who Run On Third And Fourth Party Tickets.” These tend to be eccentrics who the major parties want nothing to do with, so they make up their own party of one, order a bunch of free business cards for their campaign at Vistaprint, and then try to siphon off voters from the fringes. Really, I think they’re just self-promoters. The more conservative of these will incorporate the word “Liberty” and/or “Freedom” and/or “Constitution” in their new party name. Those on the Left will be some combination of “People’s” and/or “Worker’s” and/or “Marijuana.” It goes without saying that none of these people have a clue.
You’ll also meet “The Last Minute Filers Who Have Absolutely No Institutional Support.” These people, year after year, show up at the local nominating conventions with barely enough petition signatures, often of dubious origin, and a stack of photocopied fliers that are poorly formatted and replete with spelling errors. They insist on being given an opportunity to speak at the convention, they get less than one percent of the vote, and then leave in a huff to begin planning their run on the “Liberty Freedom Constitution” ticket. That’ll teach you! Their “campaign” from that point out will consist largely of posting favorable comments about themselves on local political blogs while pretending to be other people, as well as constantly trashing you for being an “establishment candidate,” which translates as “someone who is actually taken seriously by others.”
Then there’s “Perpetually Optimistic,” and his first cousin “Perpetually Clueless.” The difference between the two is that Perpetually Optimistic thinks he has a chance of winning no matter the odds, or voter registration, or district, or polls, or lack of money, whereas Perpetually Clueless is completely oblivious to that data, usually by choice. Either way, mention the odds to either of them and they’ll argue that this year is different because “The people are angry.” This is perhaps the most overused mantra in politics. Year after year you’ll hear about how angry the people supposedly are, yet the same politicians are almost always reelected.
Every once in a while, either Perpetually Optimistic or Perpetually Clueless will morph into “Candidate Cult Leader,” who thinks the further to one extreme he goes, the more the public will support him. He’s convinced that what the public really wants is a candidate who’s “not a politician” (whatever that means) and who is “not afraid to speak his mind,” by which he means “says whatever comes to his mind.” This candidate isolates himself inside a cocoon of a few dozen dedicated supporters, whose loyalty and dedication is mistaken as being representative of a much more widespread public support. He is well-versed in hollow slogans that he uses as a substitute for thoughtful analysis, and is unusually susceptible to giving bizarre quotes that demonstrate him to be an out-of-touch extremist. When this happens he will not understand what all the commotion is about (this is due to the echo chamber effect of the cocoon), and will simultaneously convince himself that his crazy quote will resonate with the people, while angrily blaming the media for taking his words out of context, even when they clearly did not.
Now then, Candidate Cult Leader should not be confused with “Legend In His Own Mind,” who thinks that being nominated for some position nobody’s ever heard of makes him a big shot, and who will ruin your fundraiser by inviting a dozen of his friends and telling them they don’t have to pay.
You’ll also meet “The Candidate Who Can’t Answer Basic Questions.” Ask him something easy, like why he’s running, or why you should vote for him, or what issues are important to his race, and he’ll look at you like you’re trying to trip him up, as though you asked him to discern the combined circumference of the rings of Saturn. He’ll fumble for answers, attempting to combine portions of vague and often unrelated platitudes, until finally he runs out of things to say. Not that he’ll have reached a concluding thought, he’ll just stop talking. Don’t be surprised to hear him or her say something like “The people are angry,” or “I can see Russia from my house.”
The polar opposite of this person is “The Candidate Who Answers Every Question With A Speech.” He’s usually some young upstart who thinks he’s Ronald Reagan incarnate, and secretly believes himself to be considerably overqualified for whatever office he is running. He comes armed with five anecdotes for everything, and all sorts of dubious data that he’s mined from Wikipedia, which he only half remembers and really can’t explain in any great depth. He was involved in student government from fifth grade onward, maybe carried a briefcase in college (yes, I’ve seen this), and speaks the same way to one person as he would to an entire arena, so don’t ask him a question if you have to be up early the next day. Instead, just let him give his speech to the group as a whole so you only have to hear it once. He takes himself too seriously by a factor of ten and is completely incognizant of time, so there’s no point in telling him he only has X number of minutes to speak. But his applause lines usually fall flat, either because of poor delivery, or because the audience has just stopped paying attention. He is not nearly as entertaining as his usual running mate, The Candidate Who Can’t Answer Basic Questions.
But those two at least understand that answering questions is part of the game. You’re not even allowed to ask questions of “The Politically Entitled Candidate”! You’re just supposed to fall in line, and be grateful that he’s doing you and the rest of the people a favor by running. Now shut up and hand out these glossy pamphlets and road signs. Do it!
At some point, you’ll meet “The Guy Who Channels Howard Beale From The Movie Network.” He has no ideas, only gripes, and he’s mad as hell about all of them. He’ll get the loudest applause at the nominating convention, maybe the most votes, and within weeks of his official nomination your party will be trying to figure out how to get him off the ticket. Seriously, be careful, because this person quite often becomes “Everybody’s Nightmare Running Mate,” and he can single-handedly sink an entire ticket. Before long you and your non-insane running mates will be secretly plotting to make sure he is not aware of upcoming campaign events, which means that at meetings he’ll constantly complain that he’s not getting everyone else’s emails.
And then there’s “The Candidate Who Comes To The Nominating Convention With A Speech Prepared By His Wife,” which he clearly did not rehearse and reads through at top speed without lifting his head up, and is usually only about halfway through when the person in charge calls “time.” But he’ll keep speaking anyway. The first time he does this he’ll be eliminated at the convention, so the next year he’ll try to come back and run for some office for which there’s no competition. At which point you’ll get to hear the same speech again.
You’ll also meet “The Disaffected Party Transplant,” who formerly belonged to the opposition, but either fell out of favor or was never in favor, so he switched sides hoping to find greener pastures. The other side considers this addition by subtraction, and that’s if they’re even aware of it. And after years of frustration with the opposition, he won’t find any luck on your side either. If he does, you’re in trouble.
And let’s not forget “The Former Law Enforcement Officer Who Retired In His Forties.” He has never in his life spoken to people, he has only spoken at them, and it shows. During his speeches, he’s so rigid, authoritative, and humorless that when you talk to him in person you half expect him to ask for your license and registration, and his speeches seem designed not so much to get his audience to be enthusiastic, but to get them to disperse. Of all the candidates, and there is always one, he is the most likely to opt to give his speeches without aid of notes or a microphone. This, by the way, is never an improvement.
(As a side note, I ran with two former law enforcement officers at different times and both were brilliant. But I’ve also seen so many others who fit the above description too perfectly to avoid the generalization. There seem to be a lot of these in New Jersey, land of the thirty and forty year retirements for public workers).
Then there’s “The Candidate Who Got Dragged Into This Because They Couldn’t Find Anyone Else.” Oh, he’s a joy to be around!
Then there’s “The Candidate Whose Only Qualification Is Belonging To An Over-Specific Demographic Group.” This candidate is unique to Republicans, as Democrats don’t really have a diversity problem. And Republicans should absolutely try to diversify, and I’ve had a lot of great candidates from all different ethnicities and backgrounds run with me on the Republican ticket, and thank God for them. But sometimes the powers-that-be get it into their collective consciousness that they need to recruit (impose) a candidate who’s of this gender, of this ethnicity, of this age, and from this district (not that any normal people know what voting district they live in), and what happens when they get that specific is that they miss a lot of good candidates along the way. This strategy will result in a net gain of roughly a half-dozen votes, almost all of which will come from the candidate’s immediate family, and none of which will go to the rest of the ticket.
And then there’s “The Candidate Who Came Out Of Retirement.” He last ran before women were allowed to vote, and most of the people he worked with on his previous campaign have since passed away, which means they’re now voting for Democrats. There’s usually a good reason why he has not been in public office in a while, and he hopes by now that people have forgotten about it. They haven’t. They may have forgotten about him, but they haven’t forgotten about it.
You’ll also meet “The Candidate With No Discernible Qualifications For The Job Who Is Only Running Because He Needs Work.” I’m not kidding when I say I’ve met more than one candidate who, when asked why he was running, said something to the effect of “I haven’t worked in a while and nobody’s hiring.” By which he means that nobody’s hiring him. Inspirational, right? This is the guy Thomas Dewey was talking about when he opined that “No man should be in public office who cannot make more money in private life.”
After meeting all of the above, you’ll be relieved when you finally meet a candidate who is wonderful, and intelligent, and articulate… until he has to speak to a group of more than three people. This guy would rather be water-boarded than give a speech, and his audience would rather be water-boarded than have to listen to it. He can’t even talk about his own background without reading from note cards, and those quickly become smeared with his hand sweat. Without exaggeration, watching “Candidate Stage Fright” squirm and choke and stutter and sweat while he tries not to wet his pants in front of even a small room is about as uncomfortable as watching those commercials for abused and neglected pets. And for whatever reason, this person is physically incapable of holding the microphone the appropriate distance from his face.
Oh, let’s not forget “The Candidate Who Doesn’t Believe In Campaigning.” He thinks that all the door knocking, and phone calls, and mailers, and parades, and speeches to small groups of people who are going to vote the party line anyway, and county fairs, and lawn signs, and stickers don’t add up to a hill of beans, especially in an election nobody even knows is happening, for an office nobody knows anything about, against an incumbent nobody can name. This candidate is especially annoying because he is almost always right. Ahem.
And then there’s everyone’s favorite, “The Candidate With The Embarrassing Incident In His Background That He Conveniently Forgot To Tell Everyone About.” Hey, for whatever reason, your opposition will always do a better job of vetting your candidates than you will, and the moment your ticket starts to make progress, all of a sudden BAM! You wake up one morning to find out that a few years ago your exciting, energetic, up-and-coming running mate had been arrested for, oh I don’t know, getting drunk and using racist slurs in a diner while mooning the patrons. That’s just a hypothetical example. And if your opposition is smart, they’ll drop this bombshell after the deadline to remove him from the ballot, so you’ll have to choose between being stuck with him, or getting even more bad press when you have to go to court to beg a judge to erase his name despite the missed deadline. Again, that’s just a hypothetical.
You’ll meet really hard working candidates, and candidates who never lift a finger. You’ll meet true patriots, and you’ll meet opportunists. And you’ll meet dedicated candidates, and candidates who just put their name on a ballot to see it, and maybe even a candidate who’s doing it for college credit. And, inevitably, you’ll meet at least one underwhelming mediocrity who has no people skills, can’t give you the time of day, and doesn’t work the room, choosing instead to park himself by the bar next to his handler, only occasionally looking over to stare at your girlfriend. He received mediocre grades at a mediocre college at which he is rumored to have been disciplined for some mysterious incident that is subject to great speculation, and he can barely hold a real job. Be nice to this person. He’s almost certainly a congressman.
The Campaign Personnel
If the candidates represent the center of the political solar system, then the campaign personnel are the orbiting planets. Hopefully, your campaign will have a “Heavy Lifter,” a guy who just does everything: press releases, fundraisers, door-to-door, literature drops, you name it, he’s there. I’ve been fortunate to have a few of these.
But you’ll also meet a lot of people you can live without, and usually the first is “The Professional Advisor Who Wants To Sell You His Services.” There are a lot of these, and the moment they get so much as a whiff of your intention to run for office, they’ll start circling like sharks. These people will promise you the moon — you’ll be the next mayor, or congressman, whatever you want, and you’ll be set up for a run for governor in just a few years — and all you need is his guidance. Sure it seems improbable, but don’t forget, the people are angry! And just for you, and I mean JUST for you, he’ll manage your campaign for the cut rate of only $50,000!
Which, of course, you don’t have, and if you did, you wouldn’t need him.
So instead of that, you’ll put together your own campaign staff, which is to say that you’ll tell yourself you’re putting it together, but really it just comes together by itself with only limited input from you. You won’t know half of these people or how they got there, but here’s who they are:
Every campaign, without fail, has “The Person Who Makes Suggestions Just To Be Heard.” This person contributes absolutely nothing, and has and wants no official position, yet shows up to all your campaign meetings (uninvited), and possesses the innate ability to find fault with everything. And you have to be careful about this, because it can be contagious. Before you know it, your entire campaign staff will be complaining that your fundraiser is going to use paper plates instead of Styrofoam. And it shouldn’t start at 6:30, it should start at 7:00. And your invitations should have your full middle name spelled out, not abbreviated. And the bullet points on your walking pieces should be italicized instead of underlined. Or maybe both. And your lawn signs should have little American flags on them. And if your signs have the party name on them, they shouldn’t, and if they don’t, they should. And whatever your website name is, it doesn’t contain enough detail.
That reminds me. Website names. You’d think this would be pretty simple (then again, I thought picking out disposable plates would’ve been simple). But you’ll never have any shortage of dumb ideas for what your website name should be, and the worst will come from The Person Who Makes Suggestions Just To Be Heard. Incapable as he is of understanding the concept of simplicity, or just leaving well enough alone, he will insist that your URL incorporate your full name (and that of your running mate, if applicable), the office for which you’re running, your party name, and the district number or locality in which you’re running, never mind that this will make the name stupidly long, and nobody will bother to type it in, much less remember it correctly. This is not an exaggeration. And heaven help you if you have a running mate with a name nobody can spell or pronounce. You will actually hear suggestions like “www.FrankSmithAndGebhardSigurdardirForDistrict36Assembly2016.com”, (or “.Net,” if that’s not available), as though the goal is to cause as much confusion and difficulty as possible so that only the truly committed will gain access to the site. I kid you not when I say that one of my campaigns actually had a website with a name that was thirty-three letters long. It did not get many hits. But then again, none of them ever do. Just pretend to be happy when your campaign’s Facebook page gets its 200 likes from your already existing friends list from your personal page. You’ll probably update this four or five times during the campaign.
(Before we move on, I just want to take a moment on the topic of odd names to note that whenever I had a running mate or an opponent with an unusual name, for whatever reason the papers always spelled their name right and mine wrong. “Rickards.” It’s not hard. If you can get “Upendra Chivukula” right, you can spell “Rickards.”)
Then you’ll meet “The People Who Are Reflexively Hostile To New Ideas.” It does not matter how many consecutive campaigns they’ve lost using the same outdated methods. This is how they’ve done things since they campaigned for Calvin Coolidge back in Nineteen-Dickity-Two, so this is how you’re going to do it: one or two fundraisers attended by the same people, which is going to cost you almost as much to put together as you’ll bring in (you’ll soon learn that your best “fundraiser” is when you go to work at your job to earn funds); one direct mail piece (these are surprisingly expensive, and just as ineffectual); one walking piece; and above all else, go door-to-door. It doesn’t matter if you’re running in a county-wide election with a population approaching 1 million, and you could not possibly reach even one percent of the voters this way, much less actually influence that many. Door-to-door is the holy grail of local politics, and if you don’t do it you’re not a team player.
It’s around this time that you’ll realize two things: 1) that campaigning requires you to spend a lot of time, energy, and money on things that you know will not translate into any votes, and 2) that your campaign isn’t really yours.
You’ll also be forcibly introduced to “The Amateur Web Designer.” This is usually a semi-employed CENGA (College Educated Not Going Anywhere) who lives with an adult relative who has volunteered him to help your campaign. Really, she’s just trying to get a customer for her lazy son’s (non-existent) web development “business,” that is if he can remove himself from his Xbox for a few hours. Bringing this guy on, even for free, is a huge mistake because six months in the project still won’t be done and you won’t be able to get a hold of him. And by then the election will be just around the corner. It’s better to just spend the money and hire a professional… though now that I think of it, those are usually CENGA’s as well. I don’t know, it’s up to you. I just learned how to do it myself.
At some point you’ll begin to develop a platform, and that’s when you’ll meet “The Guy With An Esoteric Policy Idea That Nobody Cares About.” He’ll only have one such idea, but it will be his, and though he won’t be able to articulate it in less than five hundred words, he’ll be convinced that this, above all else, is what your campaign needs to focus on. Forget public safety, taxes, education, and all those other things that people understand and care about and which fit nicely onto a leaflet. If you want to win this election, you need to focus on the fact that thanks to some Byzantine mathematical equation that only Stephen Hawking could understand, your district is projected to get only a 2.1% share of state aid for whatever, whereas the neighboring districts get 2.3%, even though per capita income in your district is 1.4% less, because the formula makes assumptions based on historical trends that are unlikely to repeat themselves due to demographic changes, and therefore the formula’s growth projection variable is highly suspect at best.
And if that doesn’t get people fired up to vote for you, I don’t know what will!
These people are so dumb, and their instincts so poor, that they’re frequently promoted to the highest positions in the party. And there’s actually a reason for this phenomenon: candidates won’t hire them after they pass the volunteer stage, and they’re not qualified for any private sector jobs, so they stay with the party while other people leave for greener pastures, and just kind of ascend by way of seniority and attrition. Politics has a weird reverse-gravity that lifts inert, heavy objects.
Now, keep in mind that in political campaigns, ideas are like people’s children. To tell people that you don’t like an idea is like saying that their baby is ugly. And your job is to kiss babies, even the ugly ones. This is something you have to experience in order to appreciate, and it’s something you have to appreciate in order to handle diplomatically. There is probably no good way to object to an idea, but there are varying degrees of bad ways, and your job as a candidate is to pick the one that will cause the least drama.
Or just do what I tend to do, which is offend people first by suggesting that their idea makes no sense, and then apologize and give in for the sake of solidarity and lose. None of it really matters, so just pick your battles and avoid the larger headaches.
Anyway, The Guy With An Esoteric Policy Idea That Nobody Cares About usually teams up against you with “The Person Who Doesn’t Ever Want To Attack The Opposition For Any Reason,” because to attack is mean-spirited and you (i.e., “they”) want to run a positive campaign, “positive” being a synonym for “impotent and ineffectual.” What they really mean is they just don’t have the stomach for negativity, never mind that your opponents will accuse you of everything short of natural disasters, and maybe even those. Don’t be surprised if you begin hearing rumors that The Person Who Doesn’t Ever Want To Attack The Opposition For Any Reason is going around telling people not to vote for you.
Lastly, at least within this group, you’ll meet “The Twenty-Five-Year-Old Poli Sci Major.” Actually, you’ll meet several of them, because they tend to travel in packs. These Karl Rove wannabes dominate the political scene. They’re usually nice enough and fairly harmless, but they tend to be just one half step above CENGA class, and because they’re just kids who insulate themselves in political echo chambers and haven’t spent more than a moment in the real world, they generally don’t have much common sense. They therefore make great allies for The Guy With An Esoteric Policy Idea That Nobody Cares About, and sometimes they are that guy. They’re not really ideological so much as they are opportunistic, and they secretly think you are impossibly stupid, because, after all, they have a bachelor’s degree from some unselective college, to go along with loads of pictures on their Facebook page of themselves with semi-important people who kind of know their name, and very important people who definitely do not. Be careful because they’re usually spies for the greater party apparatus, sent to try to co-opt your campaign and its limited resources for the benefit of The Politically Entitled Candidate. And should anyone volunteer for your campaign with any real talent, they’ll relegate him or her to the most menial of tasks in order that their supremacy not be challenged. Someday, they hope to manage a national campaign and find themselves in the White House, but will instead wind up being The Professional Advisor Who Wants To Sell You His Services.
Many never even get paid for their work. Unable to find a real job, they just go from one campaign internship to the next, giving themselves vague titles like “Director of Campaign Operations” and printing up business cards for themselves, before giving up on the adult world entirely and deciding to return to the safety of school by pursuing a master’s in political science (after they fail to get into law school), not so much because they think this will ever improve their chances of employment, but really, just to avoid it for another year or two.
By the way, if you ever want to hear a group of people bellyache about student loans, hang around the Poli Sci crowd.
One last word of caution about this group: they all know each other, even across party lines, and when they’re not involving themselves in your campaign they have nothing better to do than talk about you and all the other “idiot” candidates they’re working with.
Once you actually start campaigning, you’ll meet the widest variety of people you can imagine. You’ll meet “The Volunteers Who Say They’ll Do Anything To Help,” except give money, or make phone calls, or do meet and greets, or anything else that might actually aid the effort. But if you win, they’ll expect you to remember that they volunteered to do anything for you. And learn this rule now when it comes to volunteers: when they tell you “yes,” it means “maybe,” and “maybe” means “no.” So don’t delegate any important task to someone you’re not paying, other than The Heavy Lifter.
You’ll also meet “The Person Who Needs Constant Ego Massages.” In fact, you might meet more than one, because for some reason they tend to come in pairs, and they always hate each other, like God could not have created one of these people without creating the other in order to maintain balance in the universe. Anyway, your job is to constantly assure both sides that you’re on their side. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be in politics.
And you’ll meet “The Middling Businessman Who Pretends To Be Heavily Influential.” This guy will promise to raise all sorts of money for you and introduce you to all the players in the community. He’s usually good for one or two minimum donations to fundraisers, but after that he’ll expect to be let in for free, along with a small group of other middling businesspeople who he’s trying to impress. This person is usually a net loss.
You’ll meet “The People Who Are Only Involved In Politics Because They Think It’s A Social Club.” They don’t really care about winning or losing, or advancing any sort of policy for that matter. They just like going to and hosting little parties, and their leader is the aforementioned Person Who Doesn’t Ever Want To Attack The Opposition For Any Reason.
The most ubiquitous of all the people you will meet will probably be the local professionals — mostly lawyers and developers — who will donate a little bit of money (both to you and your opponents) and in return expect to get a government contract once you get elected. In any other context the word for this would be “bribery,” but in politics it’s called “business as usual.” And some of these guys are so flagrant about it — I’m not making this up — that at your fundraisers they’ll wear name tags that have their profession instead of their name on it, as in “Hello, my name is: Attorney.”
You’ll also meet a lot of seniors. What’s cool about seniors is that they give the most honest feedback. When I ran for state senate I remember debating my opponent in front of a rather large group at an adult community. No sooner had I given my first answer than one senior in the front row turned to the gentleman next to him to loudly announce that I was “full of sh*t.” And I appreciated that authenticity, though admittedly he could have been a bit more constructive with his criticism.
There are three things you need to know about seniors, however: 1) they are by far and away the most entrenched group; 2) they care first, foremost, and always about “senior issues,” over which local candidates really don’t have much control; and 3) even the ones who won’t vote for you will want to set you up with their granddaughter. Even if their granddaughter is in high school. “Oh, you have to meet my granddaughter. She’s so beautiful!” Yeah, and twenty years younger than me. Sometimes I think they just kind of categorize anybody 35 and under as “young people,” and assume that they’re all basically in the same social circle. Just be polite.
You’ll also meet “The Borderline Psychopath With An Unhealthy Hatred For The Other Side.” While it’s natural to dislike your opponents and what they stand for, this guy’s veins start popping out of his forehead at their very mention. If you ever want to know what apoplexy looks like, just drop the name of whoever leads the opposition. This guy probably doesn’t have custody of his children, might be a secessionist, and spends an inordinate amount of time at Army surplus stores, gun shows, and on conspiracy theory websites. He also expects you to be his best friend, and in addition to offering to teach you how to shoot a crossbow, he may invite you over to view some hand-built survivalist project of which he’s immensely proud, such as the basement he converted into a bomb shelter, or his backyard that he turned into a military-style obstacle course. Whatever you do, do not allow yourself to be photographed with him, and if you get caught in a conversation (and you will, every time, at every event) then for the love of God be careful what you say. Your words are almost certainly being recorded by the FBI.
You’ll also meet groupies. I was as surprised as anybody to discover that local politicians have groupies, even those politicians who are not expected to win. But man, they’re all over the place, and they come in three distinct sizes: single, divorced, and separated. You would do well to quickly learn the differences. Now, there are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part, at least when it comes to political events, “single” means “all of my friends are married, so I thought I’d try this, since I kind of like politics and I ain’t getting any younger.” “Divorced” means “I’m a self-sufficient adult, and I probably have kids.” “Separated” means “I’m just trying to make my husband jealous.”
Oh, that reminds me. Look out for “The Recently Divorced Or Separated Man Who Can’t Handle That His Ex Is Seeing Other People.” He’s not at all interested in politics, he just goes to your events because his ex will be there. What’s worse, she’ll go out of her way to push his buttons, even though she doesn’t have to. This is bad enough as it is. But keep in mind that while you’re asking yourself why they always come to your events, he’s asking himself why she’s always going to your events. Keep your distance at all costs, but understand that no matter how far you stay away from these people, you must be prepared to be confronted about this. If the Borderline Psychopath With An Unhealthy Hatred For The Other Side is good for anything, it’s for hiding next to him when Recently Divorced Or Separated Man comes near.
Let’s see. Who else will you meet…
You’ll meet “Mr. Nonsense,” who, no matter how large the room, will always find you to talk with complete incoherence. It doesn’t matter if he’d never had a drink in his life, he would likely not pass a field sobriety test. One sentence will have nothing to do with the previous and even less to do with the next, and he’ll interject names of people who you’ve never heard of into his monologue, but he’ll mention them casually as though you must know them, and he’ll constantly ask if you’re following him. What’s worse, is that somehow he will manage to get your private cell number (likely because one of your friends gave it to him as a joke on you), and will call you while you’re working and start talking the same gobbledygook. Just nod and smile (after all, he, like most people in politics, really just wants attention), and learn how to set the timer on your cell phone to go off with a “ring” like a call is coming in after a predetermined amount of time. This is an invaluable tool.
You’ll also meet a close relative of his, “The Time Nazi.” Every time you walk into a room, The Time Nazi will jet to the front to meet you and talk your ear off, as though you came there specifically just to see him and didn’t plan on spending any time with any of the other five hundred supporters there. Traditional methods of ending a conversation do not work on him, because he has a really bad habit of not letting go of your hand when he’s done shaking it, and he likes to pull you in real close, like you’re his personal confidant. Then, when you do finally achieve separation, he’ll promise that the two of you will talk some more later that night, and towards the end he’ll station himself by the door so there’s no escape. (On more than one occasion I’ve had to use a back door to avoid this problem, so it’s best to identify these exits early on because in some venues they can be hard to locate once the room starts filling up). Also, the topic of conversation is almost always the same thing every time you see him, and it’s usually about some inane campaign strategy suggestion of his that you have no intention of implementing. Just tell him you’re working on it, and blame the lack of progress on The People Who Are Reflexively Hostile To New Ideas. At least they’re good for that.
You’ll meet “Anonymous Joe,” who comes to every fundraiser, and volunteer meeting, and rally, and never says anything to anyone. He wears the same outfit every time, and nobody has more than a vague idea of who he is or where he’s from or why he’s there, but there he is. Every. Time.
You’ll meet “The Person Whose Name You Can’t Remember No Matter How Many Times You Meet Him.” This is self-explanatory, but I feel compelled to give a word of advice. When you don’t know somebody in politics who you should know, it’s best to just speak in vagaries and not try to remember too much. Had I followed this advice I’d have avoided a rather embarrassing situation wherein I once mistook a man’s wife to be his mother. True story.
You’ll also meet “The Cancer,” who exists for no other purpose than to create discord among your party. He’ll be nice to you in person, but whatever you say to him will be distorted to his own ends, and if you say nothing he’ll just make something up. He has some gripe with your party dating back to years previous when, he believes, he was screwed over by “the powers that be.” He believes every legitimate candidacy is the result of some suspicious back room deal to which he was not privy, and will do his level best to undermine the entire operation.
You’ll also meet “The Pseudo Supporter Who Agrees With None Of The Party Platform.” Why she doesn’t just join the other party is a mystery to all, but it’s usually because at some point in the distant past she or her husband had held some position of minimal importance which she had gotten from your party. So she stays on, ready to stick her hand out at the next available opportunity.
But even though she doesn’t agree with the platform, at least she tends to be an agreeable person. Worse than her is “The Guy Who Hates You For Some Mysterious Reason.” Unlike The Cancer, who is at least fraudulently nice, The Guy Who Hates You For Some Mysterious Reason makes no secret of his disdain. You’ll never have any idea what you did to him, but when you walk to his side of the room he’ll move to the other, or just leave altogether. He’ll never tell you directly what his gripe is, but get used to your friends saying “I don’t know what you did to that guy, but he hates you.” Don’t be surprised if it had something to do with a completely innocuous Facebook post that he took the wrong way.
Speaking of Facebook, you’ll also meet “The Guy With The Really Disturbing Content On His Facebook Page.” He’ll “friend” you the same night he meets you, perhaps even from the event using his cell phone, but no sooner do you hit accept and check out his page than you wonder what the heck you got yourself into. You can just hit “unfriend,” but remember that you’ll probably run into him again.
Then you’ll meet “The Person Who Disagrees With You On Everything.” Everything! No effort to establish common ground will succeed. You’ll seriously have conversations like this:
You: “Hi! I’m real glad you came tonight.”
Him: “I’m not.”
You: “Oh. Sure, I can understand why you’d rather be doing something else on a night like tonight. It sure is beautiful out, isn’t it?”
Him: “Not especially so.”
You: “OK, uh. I figured with the unseasonable warmth, clear skies and bright moon and all… Well, the food here sure is terrible, right?”
Him: “I don’t mind it.”
You: “Really? You didn’t think that chicken marsala was rubbery and undercooked? Like eating a cold tire?”
Him: “That’s what I liked about it.”
You: “Yeah. I see. I get it. Well, that West Nile Virus sounded like a real downer, huh?”
Him: “I wouldn’t mind contracting it. I have a ton of sick days I need to use before they expire. Actually, I’ll be upset if I don’t get sick!”
I’m not kidding! Well, ok, the West Nile part was a bit much. But seriously, try and trick him by saying something self-deprecatory like “I really don’t think I have any shot of winning,” and rather than agree with you (which you know he does) he’ll retort “Not with that attitude.” So instead, use reverse psychology, like “I know you won’t be making a large donation to my campaign this year.” If nothing else, you’ll get rid of him.
Now that I think of it, asking for a donation is a good way to get rid of just about anyone.
And you’ll want to keep that in mind when you meet “The Person Who Everyone’s Always Embarrassed About.” He needles candidates with absurd questions following their small group speeches, like it’s his designated responsibility to vet every candidate with what he believes the party platform should be. I used to hate when this happened. I would try to look for someone else to call on, but for some reason his questions discourage anyone else from participating, probably because he has wasted so much of everyone’s time that they just want to leave. I remember seeing a gubernatorial candidate give a speech once in front of a several hundred person audience, at the end of which he asked for questions. This woman in the front raised her hand immediately, in so doing eliciting a large groan from the crowd. When called upon, she unfolded a piece of paper and began her question by saying “I have five questions.” Everyone was embarrassed.
Then there’s “The Guy Who Has To Be In EVERY Picture.” Political events were made for digital cameras. A lot of your friends are there, you’re all dressed nicely, occasionally someone important shows up, so it just makes sense that a lot of people take a lot of pictures. But somehow this one guy has some compulsive need and almost supernatural ability to get in every shot. Seriously, the most dangerous place to be is between him and a camera.
The second most dangerous, by the way, is between a group of politicians and an open bar. I’ve had nights when I’ve gone home from a fundraiser wondering if I had footprints on my back after making that mistake.
And, winding down now, there’s “The Youngish Guy Who Doesn’t Have A Real Job And Doesn’t Seem To Be Trying Very Hard.” But he always has these great opportunities that are about to take off… by which he means short-term unpaid internships, or shady business ideas (read: “get-rich-quick schemes”) that never work and are probably illegal. These people are unusually prevalent in political circles, and I think it’s because politics is a world of make-believe, where anybody can put on a suit and tie and for a night pretend to be important and interesting and attractive.
And if you’re being honest with yourself, that’s part of the appeal to you too. And that brings us to the last, but perhaps most important person you’re going to meet in politics: You.
A candidate is basically a corporation. You get to be the CEO of that corporation, running the company from behind the scenes. The CEO’s job is to raise the value of your company stock by getting people to buy it, and by discouraging people from selling it. You do this by marketing, but you don’t market yourself. You market “Candidate You,” an alter ego that substitutes for the real you; Candidate You being more agreeable, and salable, and patient, and more electable. Candidate You takes moderate stances on subjects the real you is passionate about, argues passionately on subjects the real you doesn’t really care about, and goes to meetings you don’t want to be at, and fundraisers, and festivals, and shakes hands with people you don’t like, and kisses babies, and all that nonsense. That alter ego is the public face of the corporation. Your job, as CEO, is simply to manage it, all the while ensuring that this creation of yours is still authentic to the real you. You viewed at your best angles to be sure, but still you.
And that, my young friend, is how you’ll discover yourself, that’s how you’ll meet you, because this process cannot help but to cause you to begin to see yourself through the eyes of all sorts of other people. Whether you’re looking through the eyes of The Crazy Candidates Who Run On Third And Fourth Party Tickets, or The Heavy Lifter, or The Person Who Disagrees With You On Everything, or your opponents, or just the average guy who you meet on the campaign trail, inevitably you’ll like some of what you see of yourself, and some other stuff you won’t. That will make you a better person, if you let it. I hope you do.
And above all else, I hope you remember to have fun! Because, I’ll tell you, if you’re going to do this right, you’re going to have bad days. I’ve run in four elections, so I know. Maybe you’ll wake up one day and find that hundreds of thousands of people just received a mailing piece with your picture on it and all sorts of lies about you. Or maybe you’ll be attacked in the press. Or maybe your own campaign will let you down. And you’ll feel like the loneliest person and you won’t want to get out of bed and you’ll wonder what in the world you were thinking when you signed up for this mess.
When that happens, and it will, it’s important to persevere. I’ve studied a lot of successful people, and the one thing they all have in common is not talent, but perseverance. So push forward, and remember why you’re doing this. Remember that this is a people process. Remember the people you want to help and the suffering you want to end, and lean on all the good people you have around you, even the weird ones. They’ll help you keep your head up, and your powder dry, and your face smiling. Everyone gets down. But don’t ever give your enemies the satisfaction of seeing you down.
Congratulations, and all the best!