Just about 4 years ago, Teal Anderson Cracraft & Katie Morris were kind enough to publish a blog I wrote on their website speakyourstory.org. For some reason it never made it to this site, so I’m reposting it with some updates and reactions (in green). That crazy 2015 campaign feels like just yesterday; it also seems as if I’ve lived about 4 lifetimes since then. In other words, it is a good time to review and check in. (I’ll connect it to the original link if/when speakyourstory.org is back up and running.)
Lessons Learned as a 34-year old Woman Running for Office
1. You will have detractors. No matter how thoughtful, prepared, open or kind you are, there will be a significant amount of critics. These haters take a strange amount of pleasure from knocking you on your haunches, often for unsubstantiated or shallow reasons. Recently, I was categorically dismissed on a social media page by an older gentleman for being “unqualified for office.” To be clear, the office I am seeking is Indianapolis City-County Council. Not POTUS. While every bone in my body wants to defend my qualifications, business experience, and the 11 years I’ve spent in my neighborhood giving the proverbial damn, it simply isn’t worth the energy. You just can’t please everyone. That’s okay.
If I thought campaigning was tough from a detractor-standpoint, holding office is an entirely new level. I started seeing “SAVE THE NEIGHBORHOOD FIRE FANNING” stickers pop up less than halfway through my first term. I’ve learned to own this criticism. Sometimes I even get the opportunity to talk through issues and reach some level of resolution. Both are ok. I’ve learned to be okay with my haters; in some ways it has become a badge of honor. After all, only people who are doing significant things face serious opposition. Onward!
2. Campaign funding is insanity. When I was first told how much I would have to raise to be in this race, I was appalled. Incredulous. To even have a chance to win I needed to raise 50-60K. To put that in perspective, that is roughly the median household income for an Indianapolis family (the actual number is $52,268 for 2014, according to the Dept. of Numbers). Excuse me? As a frugal small business owner intimately familiar with pinching pennies both professionally and personally, this continues to be a frightening concept. I can’t help but play “what if” games and daydream about what we could do with that money if it didn’t need to be spent on campaign ads and direct mail. Early Childhood Education? Better technology for our law enforcement officers? Sustainable transit investments? Heck, I’d settle for road maintenance. I hope to be a part of the process that can change the way we campaign and how much money needs to be involved.m
I still marvel with incredulity at campaign fundraising. If memory serves, my first campaign raised ~ 87K (as opposed to my opponent’s ~ 92K). It was lunacy, especially considering the big prize is a job that pays $11,400/year before taxes. There must be a better way. I have thoughts on this, but I have another election to win first.
3. Politics is a foreign world. As a political rookie, feeling like an outsider comes with the territory. I had not worked tirelessly on campaigns or even made a single political contribution before deciding to run. There is an entire political underworld in Indianapolis (as in every city). This world is replete with its own players, lexicon, funding sources, hangouts, and yes–scandals. In my experience, political people (I’ve started called them PoPeeps in my head) are adrenaline junkies who love a fierce idiological debate as much as I love chocolate cake or rescue animals. Winning and losing is part of the cycle, and election results make for strange bedfellows and unholy alliances. Special interests and corporations are intimately entwined (shocker!) with the political machinations of every race, from City Council to Governor and beyond. I take it all with a shaker of salt; it can be mercifully humorous. Sometimes I still feel as if I am trapped on the set of a Will Ferrell movie. Did he just say that? Oh, they are talking about me! How did I get here again? I wanted to help my neighborhood, and then…. BAM!
Even four years into a term, this world still often feels foreign. Once I learned the rules, making solid choices about policy, partnerships, and political dynamics became much easier. I’m proud of my record from a voting, policy and collaboration perspective. While special interest groups periodically offer informative opinions, I will continue to prioritize my neighborhoods and constituents when faced with tough decisions. But yeah, there are still plenty of “oh, you mean me?!?” moments.
4. Be a woman, but not too much! As a female business owner (I bought my first business at 24), I’m used to the whole “woman in a man’s world” paradigm. I typically find it energizing and I’ve always enjoyed the added challenge of being underestimated and prematurely written off. Enter the political arena, and things get much messier. Be feminine, but not weak. Charming, but not adorable. Attractive, but not (gasp!) sexy. Confident, but not bitchy or ungrateful. Funny, but not so funny you don’t come off as serious. Smart, but not so smart you make people around you feel inferior. I’ve endured lots of mild sexism and general inappropriateness. In the business world, it has been easier to just say no or set what I consider a reasonable boundary. When everyone is a potential vote, however, it changes things. Little ripples can turn into tidal waves, so every movement must be thoughtfully considered for both short-term and long-term repercussions. It can be utterly exhausting.
In the modern era of “me too” this point requires little explanation, and looking back this seems prescient. My guidelines are simple: remain confident in who I am, treat all people with courtesy, communicate clearly when things go sideways, and give people grace when they behave in a way that is surprising, offensive or hurtful. Hey, we are all human.
5. Political experience is a slippery slope. There is an old adage, “there are 2 types of people in politics, those who want to be someone and those who want to do something.” My experience is this; there are some very hardworking people in politics that are there for the right reasons. Let me know clear, there is only one right reason, and it is to be a representative and effective voice for your constituents. Every other reason is unacceptable. It comes as no surprise to me that there are many people in politics who are trying to be someone (powerful, rich, famous) rather than trying to affect change. My lack of political experience has generally garnered a positive reaction. Though my opponent points to my neophyte status as a weakness, I’m confident that it is my biggest strength. I don’t have the lens that sees people as Democrat Diane, Independent Irene, Republican Ryan or Libertarian Levi because I come from the business world. This allows me to evaluate ideas based solely on their costs and benefits instead of authorship, intention or strategy. What a strength this will be when helping my city and representing disparate points of view.
My perspective on this has only deepened, and I do believe my lack of prior partisan experience has served my constituents well. This position does have a steep learning curve. The city of Indianapolis is a $1.18B business with many layers and thousands of moving parts. Learning the machinations is fairly complicated and can be tedious. Understanding how to affect change takes time. Now that I have the practical experience, I am much more effective. Once again, onward!
6. It takes a network. I am in awe of how many people have stepped up to support this campaign. Wearing a t-shirt, donating $25, hosting an event, knocking on doors, making cold calls… the process is cumbersome, tiresome, and well outside most comfort zones. True blue supporters, from every political affiliation and background, have brought me incessant and surprising bouts of humility, gratitude, and appreciation. They are tireless. They are endlessly optimistic. They are excited to walk door-to-door in 45 degree rain. I’ve had old teachers and coaches reach out and tell me how proud they are. I’ve had high-school students tell me they admire me for putting myself out there. Endless women have thanked me for running and being a female voice. There have been hundreds of Hallmark tear-in-the-eye moments. It has been utterly priceless and absolutely energizing.
Yep. Still true. So many people are responsible for not only a successful first campaign, but the forward motion of the last for years. Voters, family, friends, neighbors, clients, neighborhood leaders, city officials, community stakeholders, and yes, even my detractors have played invaluable roles. It continues to be humbling.
7. Discomfort is the new normal. Anyone who knows me can vouch for the fact that I love change. I don’t mind putting myself out there in ways that many people would find anxiety-inducing or even torturous. I always thought of myself as having a huge comfort zone. Then I ran for office. The easiest way to describe how much sheer awkwardness is involved in campaigning (for yourself!) is to say that discomfort is my new normal. Say something that will ruffle feathers? I’ve already done that 18 times today. Before breakfast. Have a conversation through a door-chain with a man wearing no pants? Check. Been compared to Bernie Sanders? Uh huh. Been avoided by friends for declaring myself part of a political party? Yep (the friend label has become necessarily iterative). Crack a joke to the entirely wrong audience? Dozens of times. The good news is this: after campaigning for yourself, pretty much nothing is scary.
More of this. Endless amounts.
8. Authenticity is the only way. I’ve learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that authenticity is compelling. People can disagree with your words, your ideas, your viewpoints, but anyone is receptive to someone living her truth and being who she is in her heart of hearts. I’ve had to remind myself of this anytime I feel inferior, put-down, or out of my wheelhouse. Lack of authenticity is why people generally dislike politicians. This is why it is difficult to imagine I will have a long political career, as I’m a terrible liar and perhaps pathologically honest. (Perhaps it’s a good thing that is not my goal.) It will be an interesting experiment, nonetheless. Win or lose – and make no mistake, I plan to win – this campaign has been an experience of exponential growth. I’m proud to be a younger female voice in such an unrepresentative segment of society. I hope my campaign has spurred other women on to follow suit. So many of our voices need to be heard. So many of us are more than capable for speaking for our people, whether it is a neighborhood or any other tribe which you claim. Affecting change is all about doing something you’ve never done to get a new result. Be brave; it is worth it.
Preach, 34 year-old self! At 38 years young (or some days old), these thoughts still ring as true as they did four years ago. I still largely feel like an outsider in the political sphere, but I’ve learned to make peace with that. I’m just going to keep putting out my best effort. If it gets me re-elected, then the value of pragmatism in politics in only underscored. Make no mistake, I am not finished serving yet!