Presenters during Leadership Montgomery’s “How to Run for Elected Office” workshop talked candidate filings, raising campaign money, budgeting that money, door-to-door canvassing, shaping a political message, media coverage and a host of other local election trade secrets on Saturday at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center.
There was, though, one common bit of advice that wove its way through messages from all the speakers: Before you run, have a good reason for running.
“Run to do something rather than to be somebody, or you’ll get pushed around because your primary goal will be to stay in office rather than to get things done,” read a handout from County Councilman Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), who took time out from his own bid in the 2014 County Executive’s race to shed some light on the process and encourage a grassroots, door-to-door style of campaign.
Leadership Montgomery, a non-partisan nonprofit that encourages political activity through educational programming, organized the four-hour session that gave some prospective local candidates unique insights.
“There are now more programs about running for office than there used to be, but for most people running for office is foreign territory,” Andrews told BethesdaNow.com. “I believe in grassroots campaigning and I believe there needs to be more competition in elections and I hope that’s what this will encourage. That will result in better elected officials, I think, and better government. I want to encourage people to run those types of campaigns and help them understand what’s involved.”
In the audience were a handful of candidates planning to run for what could be multiple vacant District 16 (Bethesda, Chevy Chase) House of Delegates seats. There were also political staffers, Board of Education hopefuls and area residents just interested in the process.
Andrews focused much of his thoughts on door knocking and the process of crafting a message. Candidates should be able to explain why a voter should vote for him or her in less than 30 seconds, but also able to expand upon that message for several minutes, Andrews said.
In 1998, Andrews beat four-term Council incumbent Bill Hanna in large part, he said, because of a campaign in which he knocked on 14,000 doors and kept the seriousness of his bid under the radar of Hanna’s allies and the press. He also tailored a message consistent with his background with Common Cause, an organization against the influence of special interests in elections and government.
In his campaign for county executive, Andrews has already started knocking on doors and said he’ll make it clear to voters that he will not accept campaign donations from special interests or PACs, something he hopes can distinguish his effort from that of other candidates including former County Executive Doug Duncan and potentially, current County Executive Isiah Leggett.
Those distinguishing aspects of a candidate can be vitally important, said Democratic political consultant and Maryland Juice author David Moon, especially in a county dominated by Democrats in which the primary is typically the only competitive race.
Moon spoke about the importance of knowing an election’s context. Even in a race as contested as the District 16 Delegates race is expected to be (Andrews said it’s possible 15 to 20 people enter) it’s one of the final things people look at on the ballot.
It’s likely only the most attentive of local political insiders could name the three current delegates that represent Bethesda, Moon said, which makes it important to know what else on the ballot will be attracting voters to the polls, whether its referenda or county or national races.
Andrews and Moon also spoke about “building the echo chamber,” or increasing awareness of your campaign through budget-efficient, targeted mailings, Facebook and Twitter activity and e-mail lists.
Former County Councilman Michael Knapp, who did not run for reelection in 2010 and now runs a Germantown-based economic development consultant firm, spoke about campaign fundraising.
Knapp described how asking people — whether they are friends, family or other community members — for donations can be awkward and difficult at first, like “swimming in a cold lake.” But he said ultimately, it’s a quintessential part of campaigning that no one else can do for a candidate.
Republican Central Committee First Vice Chair and campaign strategist Katja Bullock gave some practical tips to prospective candidates researching a run, including attending community meetings, Council sessions and even asking sitting elected officials for their advice.
Steve Simon, a former newspaper editor, County public information officer and now vice president with Bethesda-based communications consulting firm Van Eperen & Company, talked about crafting a media message in an era of shrinking newspaper presence and a growing number of niche online news sources.