Memphis City elections are less than nine months away. Right now, many people are getting their ducks in a row to run for office.
The City Council will have three open seats. Three additional seats will feature appointees (if the Council can come to consensus). One seat, that was elected in a Special Election in August of 2018, may also be in contention.
Maybe you’re thinking about running for office.
Petitions for City Elections will be available in mid May. This means you have some time to prepare before you have to really pull the trigger.
What should you do to get started? How much money will it take? And how can you measure your chances?
I’ll cover a lot of that in this totally not comprehensive checklist.
The first step you should take before making run for office is the one most often ignored: self-examination.
What does that mean? Ultimately, it means taking a critical look at the district, your network, your finances, and the issues that move you.
Before you even get started look at the district you live in. For City Council you should have two: a single member district (1-7) and “Super District (8,9). You can find your district by searching your voter registration here.
Type in your address. When the box comes up, click the white arrow in the blue top bar or the result. That will give you your precinct and a list of districts that you live in.
Will you be running against an incumbent? Look up your City Council reps here to make sure.
Next go here to get a map of the district you’re thinking about running in. Its a PDF, but you can hit [CTL+] to zoom in on your district. Make note of the basic boundaries, then drive the district. This will help you get some basic knowledge of the conditions on the ground.
It may sound dumb to drive the district, but its amazing how many people run for office thinking their little slice of a district is universal. All Memphis City Council districts are big. They range in diversity. Having a basic understanding of this is critical to serving the population you want to represent.
One of the easiest things to do is look at your network.
Download the contacts from your phone to Excel. Once you’ve got that, start making notes about those contacts. How well do you know this person? Will they support you? Will they donate/volunteer? If so, how much? Do they even live in the district you plan to run in?
Look at civic, church, or community groups you’re involved in. If you’re not already involved in some of these groups, that’s a red flag that you should take seriously. These groups are “network extenders”. They offer all kinds of opportunities to have direct contact to people who might support your campaign that you might not even know.
Do you know any elected officials? Do you know your elected officials? These folks may not be willing to lend their name to your campaign, but they might be willing to mentor you and help you navigate this minefield.
Once you’ve done all that, take a look at the list. Run a calculation on how much money you think you can raise from your network. Then cut that in half. If that final number is less than $15,000, you’re going to have major problems raising awareness about your candidacy.
You’ve looked at the district. You’ve looked at your network. Now you need to look at your finances. Are you living paycheck to paycheck? Do you have any savings? How many hours a week do you work? How much PTO do you have? Will your employer be willing to work with you on your schedule?
All of these things are critically important.
Many City Council members are either retired or self-employed. There’s a reason for this. Both running for office and serving in office are huge time commitments. That commitment can cut into your personal finance.
Another thing to look at is your debt load. Do you have a mortgage? Credit Card/Student loan debt? Unpaid taxes? Past bankruptcy? If you can’t get and keep these things in order before you declare, you probably should sit out until you can.
It may seem unfair, but plenty of campaigns have been sunk due to an individual’s financial problems. No sense in putting all you’ve built in jeopardy for a run that will get tanked by bad press.
Now that you’ve done all the un-fun stuff, you can think a little about what issues will drive your campaign.
These issues should be informed by the things that get you excited, and the conditions you observed when you drove through the district.
Your campaign can talk about problems, but without real solutions you probably won’t get much momentum from your issues.
Make a list of the problems. Do some research on what the City has been doing to address these problems. Are they effective? How long have they been in place? What would you do differently?
Its also helpful to look at what other cities have done to address these problems. That takes some research. Look at cities like Memphis. See what they’ve done. Looking at places like New York, Chicago, or LA might offer better solutions, but those places have way more resources.
Before you say anything about anything, you need to know you know what you’re talking about. So many candidates talk about wanting to do things that are outside the scope of the office. That might work, but not for long.
Once you’ve done your research, list out each issue, and write down your solutions. You’ll need to have an “elevator pitch” version of each issue. Most people don’t have time or the interest to read everything. Keep it simple. If they’re interested, they’ll ask questions.
Know thy Self
There’s another REALLY important thing you need to do: self-examination.
- Are you a person who starts projects but doesn’t finish them?
- Do you find yourself scrambling to tie up loose ends at the very last second?
- Do you have a problem getting to places on time or meeting deadlines?
- Do you like meeting new people?
- Do you really listen to people, or just wait for them to stop talking so you can talk?
- How do you feel about walking, a lot?
- When you’re at a party do you talk to everyone, or stand in the corner waiting for someone to talk to you?
- How well do you like math?
- Do you know, or does someone you know, know Excel?
- Do you work well in groups?
- When you’re working in a group, do you lead or wait for someone else to take the reigns?
- When you don’t know what you’re doing, do you seek advice or just plow ahead?
This is just a start. Be honest with yourself. Being bad at any of these things isn’t a reason not to run. It just means you’ll need more help. The more help you need, the harder it is to run.
Know the Rules
You’ve looked at the district, your network, your finances. You’ve got some basic issue ideas. Do you know the rules?
The Shelby County Election Commission regulates elections and financial disclosures for local elections. They have a candidate section that details the rules to run for office. Having a good grasp of things like when financial disclosures are due, how to fill out those disclosures, how to get a petition, how many signatures you need, and when the qualification deadline is are all critical to getting on the ballot.
Once you’ve qualified, you’ll still have to keep those disclosures up to date or face a fine. You should also make sure you understand the rules about yard signs and precinct outreach at the polls.
Knowing the rules will keep you out of trouble, and out of the media’s cross hairs.
Build a Team
If you’ve made it through all these steps, its time to start building a team and making a plan.
Take that network list and find yourself a treasurer. This is the most important role in your campaign. They handle the money, and the disclosures. You need someone you can trust, who will be responsible so you don’t have to worry about things.
You’re going to need to know a lot of things about voting patterns and voters in your district. Most people don’t know anything about that, or how to do it. Finding someone who both knows the math and the theory is like finding a unicorn. You’re going to need that person. There’s a cost for this data. $40 for raw data from the Election Commission, or a couple thousand bucks for an “off-the-shelf” solution that’s already set up for making lists.
Do you know someone who’s run a campaign before? Are they willing to volunteer or will it cost you? If so, how much?
Make a Plan
Once you’ve got a treasurer, data person, and a “campaign manager”, start building a basic plan.
Look at important dates: Filing deadlines, early voting starts, election day.
- Will you canvass? How many houses do you want to hit before Early Voting starts?
- Will you phone bank? How many voters do you want to reach before Early Voting starts?
- What’s your budget for yard signs, mailers, canvassing materials?
- Are there neighborhood groups you can meet with?
- How much money will it take to make your campaign viable?
- How many volunteers can you reasonably round up on any given day?
- Do you have the resources to run a poll to gauge name recognition? Do you even know anyone that can run a poll? (Most campaigns can’t afford this, but for Super Districts or Mayor, they’re useful)
Ask your friends for help. Make these asks specific, based on their strengths. Open ended asks lead to disappointment.
Most of all, pace yourself. This is a marathon, not a sprint
Unless you’re well off enough to self-fund, you’re going to need money to fund your campaign.
Use that networking list you made to identify possible donors. Start asking immediately. If you’re still not sure about running, you can use a service like CrowdPAC to get pledges before you raise a dime. If you decide not to run, no one is charged and there’s no need for refunds or financial disclosures.’
But online fundraising isn’t going to get it done. You have to make a specific ask.
- How many calls for donations are you going to make a day?
- How many people you don’t actually know are you willing to reach out to for donations?
- Will you do events or in-home meet and greets? Who will the hosts be and how much of the expense are you willing to cover?
- Campaigns have limited resources made up of three things: People, time and money. You’ll never get more time, but if you work hard enough, and have an organized campaign you may be able to get more people and money to move forward.
Understand the Media
Part of any successful plan is figuring out how to work with the media.
First, you need to know some media people. Start with the newspapers. Do you know the people who write about politics? If not, you’re going to want to meet them.
What about TV? There are very few TV reporters who know anything about politics. The couple that do, aren’t going to do a story about you unless you do something spectacular or spectacularly stupid. Having worked at a TV station, I can tell you most of them don’t really deal with local elections until the final weeks.
The media isn’t there to push your candidacy. They owe you no coverage. If you’re out there working in a way that they can see, they’ll contact you.
But you can also contact them. Reporters don’t find stories by magic. They find them because someone told them about it.
Keep your press releases short and on topic. Email a PDF of the releases directly to the reporters and to the assignment desk at each media outlet. Put the text of the press release in the body of the email as well.
If you’re not sure how to do a press release, here’s an example.
Don’t pepper the media with bullshit that isn’t a story and expect to make any friends. Also don’t harass reporters to get coverage. They’ve got a job to do. You do too.
Positive press coverage is validation of what you’ve done, not something to hang the hopes of a campaign on. If you get it great. But don’t expect it.
Pull the Trigger
Once you’ve got your plan and your team together, start putting that plan into action.
That means its time to declare your treasurer. You need to do that before you start taking money from folks. If you set up a pledge site with CrowdPAC, you can pull the trigger on that. I don’t vouch for this company or benefit in any way from them. I also don’t know about other kinds of services that might charge less. But its worth taking a look at and researching more.
Start doing your outreach. Its never too early to start making connections with people. Keep up with your work. There are a lot of campaign services that can help you with this, for a price.
Be ready to start taking calls from numbers you don’t know. Some of these calls will be from people who are really interested in you. Some may be from competitors looking to work together (IRV, if implemented, gives you a chance to team up and say, “Vote for me first, and this guy second.” Candidates in San Francisco did this some years ago to good effect.)
Take those calls. All of them. You never know what kinds of opportunities might come of one of these calls.
Beware of Bullshitters
You’ll also get calls from people who want your money.
Beware of “political consultants” and pay-to-play PACs. Find out about their success rate, and their willingness to be actively involved in your campaign. Don’t pay anyone anything until you understand what they’re going to do and have talked to some of their past clients. Do some research on the financial disclosure database. This will show you how much they were paid before, and how much success they had.
Beware of the “ballot pushers” and periodicals that claim a larger circulation than they can prove. There are several individuals masquerading as groups who are organizations in name only. They typically don’t file financial disclosures. They also don’t provide any proof of product delivery. Ask around. Find out about them. But be skeptical.
Remember, there are plenty of people who really want to help you. There are also some who just want your money. Know who you’re dealing with.
Running for office is, at once, one of the most rewarding and stressful things you may ever do.
I ran for County Commission in 2012. Even though I didn’t win, I see that campaign as a huge success. I got a couple thousand people who had never voted in a County Election before to vote. Most of the people I contacted at that time are still voting in County elections.
You can make an impact on people’s participation, and on the community even if you don’t win.
And sure, everyone wants to win, but only one person can. If you’re as focused on the service part of running as you are on the winning part, you’ll be more likely to be called to the service you’re best at, even if you don’t win.
Finally, if you want to do some more reading about ways to prepare for running for office. Here are a couple more resources:
- How to Run for Political Office
- How to Run for Office
- Become a Candidate – Shelby County Election Commission