Six lessons I learned running for public office (and losing):
I moved to the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania in the summer of 2001, and ever since I have immersed myself in civic and community organizations working to help uplift a region that has suffered from three catastrophic floods, a failing economy based on steel and coal, and an aging population. I became president of the local Young Professionals (YP) organization, joined the board of directors of Goodwill of the Southern Alleghenies, and volunteered to provide high school students free prom gowns. So, I guess the idea that I would commit myself to the city itself by running for city council is not much of a stretch.
In 2019, two city council seats were up for election, and I was one of many people who saw the incumbents as a barrier to the progress we were so desperately trying to achieve. I had floated the idea of running, half-jokingly, to friends, and didn’t fully embrace it until people I valued and respected reached out to me and encouraged me to take the idea seriously. I did not make it through the primary (there was a field of five of us just from one party who wanted to unseat the incumbents), but I am not ruling out running again. The next time I will know a little better what to expect.
- Pick the brains of others who have run before you. Running for office is a very complicated process, with forms to file, petitions to complete, and a lot of rules to follow (mostly involving money which I’ll get to in a minute). Deadlines, signatures (I needed a notary?), and other potential landmines can derail the best of intentions.
- Money in politics is complicated on every level, even when you don’t have it, use it, or want it. In my area, you can avoid filing a lot of complicated paperwork if you agree to both raise and spend less than $250 and do not form a campaign committee. Woohoo, sign me up! That was harder than it sounds, when just 40 yard signs for supporters were $225, but I made it through. Not forming a committee meant that anyone who did want to give me money had to literally give it to me (and I had to keep that running tote board in my head to stay under the limit). And no matter what I did and how bare bones I kept things, there are those who will question everything – keep the receipts!
- Don’t overestimate support on social media (or the influence of social media). As the former YP president, and the youngest candidate running, I had visions of energizing the younger citizens of Johnstown – entrepreneurs, new transplants, and homegrown natives alike. I started an online page with my campaign platform – and no one showed. Correction: my very supportive circle of friends and allies showed up, but it turns out they all lived outside of the city limits. If downtown business owners could vote downtown, I may have done better, but unfortunately, they all lived in the suburbs.
- Don’t underestimate the power of shaking hands. Before you can even appear on the ballot, you must file a petition – 100 registered voters from your party that live in the area of the office (in my case within the Johnstown city limits). As I mentioned above, way more of my friends lived outside the city limits than I realized. I spent a really great day (a rare warm sunny day in February) walking neighborhoods with an acquaintance who was running for school board. I should have done more of that, even after my petition was signed. The fear of knocking on a random door and hoping they were of your party affiliation (or at least wouldn’t slam the door on you if they were not) kept me procrastinating. The men I ran against had all grown up here, and had highly respected roles in the community (fire fighter, restaurant owner, etc.) that meant I should have worked twice as hard to get my name out there.
- Politics are not as cutthroat as it seems on TV. The day we all went to the courthouse to draw our numbers and determine what order we would appear on the ballot (who knew that was a thing?), my 4 opponents and I joked and laughed about the best man (or woman – of which I was the only one) winning, and we would run into each other over and over at multiple fundraisers. We shared a common goal, being better than what currently existed, and that kept things collegial. After I lost the primary, I ended up working the polls in November for a former opponent (who won – yay!) and became even better friends with he and his wife. He also made a point to tell me, the day after the primary, publicly, on social media, not to throw out those yard signs because there would be 5 seats up for election in 2021.
- But sometimes it is. Rumors abounded that three of us that were running were in the pocket of a local businessman, and that we would be his puppets. Because of my work in the community, I would often be at fundraisers and events with him, and with other civic leaders also considered to be aligned with him. No matter how many times we joked that “our checks were lost in the mail”, there is no way to disprove a whisper like this – you just have to rely that your record and your character will disprove it for you. Two days before the election I had to go out and make sure each yard sign said “paid for by Sherri Rae” – an anonymous Facebook message threatened to file a campaign violation over this oversight that in their mind proved I was bought and paid for.
The night of the primary, as I sat on my friend’s couch trying not to check my phone every 10 minutes for results, I knew I would probably not win – the others had just wanted it more and worked for it more. But knowing that makes me consider running again – I want to work with them on a team to improve my city.
-Sherri Rae, Gamma Xi