This is part two of a seven-part series about running for public office.
I had no trouble deciding which office I wanted to run for, the first time I decided to do it. There was a freshman legislator whose election jolted me. I had watched this person on the stump and thought, "There is no way this person could, or should, represent me." But they surprised me and won, first in a primary and then in the general election.
I took it upon myself, a complete beginner, to go up against the incumbent at the earliest possible opportunity. My fool’s errand was mercifully ended by external circumstances that took me out of the district, but I retained the value of learning firsthand that it is actually possible to go from zero to candidate for state office.
I don't actually recommend using a negative impetus to choose a position. But absent a quixotic mission like I had assigned myself, exploring a run for office can be a bewildering ordeal, starting with the sheer number of races in a given election year. 2014 boasts a particularly full slate, and that makes for a great opportunity to check out all the choices.
Perhaps the simplest way to start narrowing the options is to rule out those for which you’re not qualified. Some offices, such as sheriff, have certification requirements the average person doesn’t generally meet. Likewise, judgeships require one to be authorized to practice law.
A number of offices specify age and/or residency minimums above the basic state qualifications. You can read the whole list on your state or county election commission’s website. You’ll find that a great many simply require you to be an adult citizen in good standing who's not actively serving in the armed forces.
I mentioned above that I moved out of the district where I had started my first run. This is important: Know your federal, state and local district boundaries. The rule of thumb is that you can only hold office where you can vote. Sometimes, the other side of the street is in another district, so don’t just assume. This is another way to limit the array. There are five state House of Representatives districts in Hamilton County, but you live in only one of them.
But there are statewide and countywide offices, too, and not everyone wants to be a legislator. This gets us to another level of analysis. What do the different elected positions actually do? How, for example, is a county clerk different from a county court clerk? What’s the difference between a council member and a commissioner? Why do we have two mayors?
At the risk of insulting your intelligence, I’ll just briefly remind us all of the three branches of government (legislative, executive, judicial) and overlay that with the three basic levels of jurisdiction (local, state, federal). Any combination between the two yields at least one elective office, save the federal judiciary, which is appointed. (Let’s not argue right now about the Tennessee Plan, as it’s doubtful any of us is aiming to run for state appellate court judge, aside from that one guy in Knoxville.)
Legislators speak for all the people in their district and work with (and against) each other to hammer out the laws that apply to everyone in the municipality, county, state or nation. The name of the game is negotiation and compromise, despite what some will tell you.
The executive branch takes charge of carrying out those laws and with the general administration of services. And of course, the judicial branch administers civil and criminal justice and interprets the law. Even your personality type can help you choose among these.
One of the best things you can do to learn about what each office does is watch them in action. Attend Hamilton County Commission or Hamilton County School Board meetings. If you’re interested in an office like trustee or register, arrange for a visit so that you can learn what goes on in those places. They likely will be happy to have someone show interest (provided they’re not keenly aware of your intent to knock them out of the seat)—and if they’re not, well, there’s your sign. These are public-facing jobs, after all.
A good way to ease the path of entry is to aim for an open seat where someone is moving on to another office; has decided they’ve had enough; or, on the uglier side of things, has been forced to resign. Taking on an incumbent is usually a steep uphill climb, but by no means let that deter you if you have the passion, skills and organization to mount a challenge.
And finally, a very common catalyst that turns ordinary citizens into candidates for a particular office is a single issue. But even here there are choices. Let’s say education is your No. 1 passion. There are different ways to have an impact based on whether you run for congress, governor, state Legislature or County Commission.
Once you've picked an office to seek, it's a good idea to stick with that choice. Circumstances vary, but in general, I raise an eyebrow when I see candidates jump from one race to another, as if they are looking for the best possible chance to win victory for themselves instead of fighting for a constituency or a cause.
Somewhere between dogcatcher and galactic lord prime minister*, there's a place you can do the most good. Zero in on that.
Joe Lance shares his opinions on civic matters and politics from an impassioned but nonpartisan perspective. You are invited to follow both of his Twitter accounts (@tnticket or @joelance) or email him at email@example.com. The opinions expressed in this editorial belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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