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.
Voters are skeptical of people running for office and often with good reason. While much of the skepticism cascades down from national politics, not all of it can be blamed on Congress.
Community leaders can sense when election season is heating up: elected officials start attending Kiwanis and Rotary again. Candidates attend school board meetings for the first time. Office seekers show up to volunteer at the community's biggest annual events.
How do you avoid the snickers about election season being about you? Start volunteering today. Don't wait until a week before you kick off your campaign.
Volunteering will help you win a campaign, and you can aid your community in the process.
Choose a single organization to join, and show up consistently. 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.
Lead an important community effort
Every city and town has important problems that need to be addressed. And there are always too few leaders to address problems. When you notice a problem, lead the effort to fix it.
Leading a community effort from an unelected position is a great way to show your community you can be an effective leader on the city council.
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 by yourself if necessary.
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.
Get on a board or a commission
When you run for office, its important to know who the influencers in the community are. Influencers aren't always the folks with titles or big checkbooks. And you can learn who pulls the strings by sitting on a local board or commission.
Most cities have a long list of boards and commissions they need citizens to sit on. They're great opportunities to learn who throws their weight around in your city, how city government works, and they may help you decide whether -- or when -- you want to run.
Pay attention to who makes the appointments. If its the mayor, pay attention to who he gets input from.
Once you're on the board, note whose opinion the board pays attention to. And if the board passes resolutions, who do they filter up to?
I recommend choosing a board you love or have expertise in. Being a leader on the board will get you more access and information than being a bystander.
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.
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.
Learn to raise money (and build a donor list)
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.
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.
Being visible in your community is a lifestyle choice, and its an important one if you want to run for office. Its time consuming, and it'll change your weekly routine.
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.
You'll find that when you are ready to office, you'll start with a big advantage.
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