Opposing candidates in a campaign rarely begin on an equal playing field. Incumbents always have advantages. And even among two candidates facing off for an open position, one generally has experiences that give him an advantage.
If you plan to run for city council one day, start working towards it now. You might win the election before it begins.
City council races are less ideological than federal, congressional races. They're generally non-partisan. There is often a "more conservative" and a "more liberal" candidate in the race. But voters put more emphasis on who they like than who they are ideologically aligned with. Consider George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life. No matter how well Ernie the cab driver campaigns, he will never beat George Bailey for Mayor of Bedford Falls. Everybody loves George Bailey.
You can work to be liked in your community starting today. But for voters to like you, they need to get to know you.
Volunteering is helpful because you can aid your community and show that you care. I suggest choosing a single organization to join. Focusing on a single organization will be more productive. You'll develop stronger, longer-lasting relationships with the other volunteers. And over time you will take on leadership roles that will be useful as a public servant.
Be visible in your community
This is a lifestyle choice, and its an important one if you want to run for office. Attend city council meetings when important issues arise. Attend your neighborhood association or HOA meetings. Go to the parades, fairs and festivals your city puts on. And use each of those opportunities to say hello to people.
Lead an important community effort
Every city and town has important problems that need to be addressed. When you notice a problem, lead the effort to fix it. If you can do this through your volunteer organization, great. But if you find an issue that personally matters to you, jump in and change something. Does your city need a new park? Start lobbying the council and help raise money for it. Is crime becoming a problem? Organize a neighborhood watch group.
Volunteer on a political campaign
Choose any campaign you want. As a volunteer, no matter how small or big the campaign is, you'll be involved in efforts that will be relevant to your future campaign. You will learn new skills. You will increase your odds of getting important endorsements. And you will make important political connections.
Build a donor list
As you meet people in the community, stay in touch. Collect phone numbers and email addresses. Follow up and say thank you when you get an opportunity (I keep hundreds of thank you cards in my desk drawer). When you see someone you met recently in the grocery store, stop and say hi. Keep new acquaintances' contact information organized. When you run for office, you'll need it for your first fundraiser. If you need a primer on networking, I highly recommend Harvey Mackay's Dig Your Well Before You're Thirsty.
Get on a board or a commission
Many cities have a long list of boards and commissions they need citizens to sit on. They're great opportunities to learn about how city government works, and they may help you decide whether -- or when -- you want to run.
Getting to know your community will be immensely helpful, and there are a few skills you may want to consider developing in the process.
Learn to raise money
Raising money is the most difficult task for most candidates. It is also the biggest barrier to most first-time candidates winning. Either a candidate does not know how to raise money, or he won't because its intimidating. Consider raising money for your volunteer group, a political campaign or community effort. Find a seasoned fundraiser in the group to teach you how. Fundraising is among the most important skills you can learn if you want to run for office. And it is a learned skill, not something any of us come by naturally.
Toastmasters teaches public speaking, presentation skills and leadership abilities. A year in Toastmasters will help you deliver a compelling stump speech when you kick off your campaign.
If you would like to get more campaign tips, you can check out "First-Time Candidates" magazine, subscribe to the blog or connect with me on twitter or LinkedIn. You can also get campaign tips emailed to you once a week by signing up to to the right of this post.