What I Wish I Knew Before I Ran
Leadership is not just about age, experience or policy knowledge. It’s also about how you motivate and inspire others. And how you fight for an inclusive politics that works for everyone — even those who don’t have deep pockets or connections.
As a 17-year survivor of childhood cancer, I know what it feels like to be written off and discounted. I know what it feels like to people talk AT me instead of WITH me. But public service became my therapy and saved my life — it gave me an opportunity to connect with others who have similar struggles, feel a sense of community and purpose, and channel my pain into something positive.
That’s why I’ve spent every day of my life dedicated to creating equality of opportunity for my community — because when each of us does better, we all do better. That’s why I have been committed to the idea that if you’re lucky enough to open a door of opportunity for yourself, you also have an obligation to keep that door open for those behind you.
And that’s why I ran for local office in 2018. To create a platform for change and ensure no one will feel voiceless because of their struggles or their age, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, disability, income bracket or zip code.
But this idea of representation is not new. In fact, many Democrats today continue to feel voiceless, disengaged and disenfranchised by our politics. To be clear, these voters are not apathetic about politics, but rather find it difficult to trust leaders in which they cannot see themselves in.
Voters want their leaders to not just sympathize with their concerns, but actually understand them because they have lived similar experiences. They want elected officials whose vision is shaped through the eyes of a constituent, rather than the often ineffective “business as usual” they have come to know and expect.
We must engage these residents in the political process in order to create better policy, increase transparency and accountability in our government, and ultimately make our democracy stronger. I believe the best way to accomplish this is by having equal representation in all levels of government.
This starts with people like you running for office.
If you are on the fence about whether or not to throw your hat in the arena, I hope the advice of a former candidate can offer some insight and encouragement. My advice below is not exhaustive (for example, I made no mention of creating field, fundraising or communication plans), but it’s advice I wish someone had given me.
(1) It’s going to be scary. That’s OK.
Often times, those of us who feel marginalized find it difficult to make our voices heard. We find it challenging to earn respect, get credit for our ideas or have our opinions be taken seriously. This starts a vicious cycle of self-doubt and self-destruction.
It’s scary to stand up for what you believe in and encourage others to follow your lead. But it’s in these moments when we can break the cycle of oppression and change the systematic inequalities that occur in our society.
But if you understand the issues and are passionate about improving the circumstances of your community, then be OK with stepping outside your comfort zone.
(2) “Experience” and “connections” do not necessarily matter to voters.
Diverse and young people face unique barriers and struggles simply because of who we are. And as soon as we try to make our own voices heard, challenge the systematic inequalities, or attempt to lead on the issues we will be dealing with in the future — we are told by some in the establishment to keep quiet and “wait in line”. Even when we have the relevant experience, we are told that it’s “still not good enough”. But you shouldn’t need to have years of insider connections or elected experience to matter.
Luckily, voters today are more accepting of fresh faces. And in my experience, I found that — while my resume, connections and job titles sometimes helped me get in the door — what actually got a voter interested was my specific knowledge of local policy, and my willingness to actually listen to their concerns and show empathy.
So at the end of the day, all a person should do before they run for office is get involved in their community and do their homework. Don’t think about running as a “stepping stone” for higher office. Instead, run for office because you see a gap, believe you can add real value, and want to change the circumstances of your community (not the circumstances of your life).
Also, since your resume might not necessarily matter to most voters:
- Do the best work in whatever job you have;
- Find ways to translate those tangible skills to the office you’re running for;
- Put together a strong campaign with specific policy proposals; and
- Work incredibly hard on the campaign trail to connect with each voter.
(3) Build the right campaign team.
Campaigns are extremely tough and emotionally draining. You are constantly having people doubt your judgement, motivations and qualifications (imagine doing hundreds of job interviews a week).
Being able to lean on a few of my core campaign team members and my family got me through those challenges.
So surround yourself with people who understand your passion and will sincerely support your goals. They should be honest, encouraging, loyal and respectful. And most importantly, they should be non-judgmental.
(4) Strive to win. Learn to lose.
You can have the best experience, run the best campaign, earn the best endorsements, raise the most money and do everything right — and still lose your election.
After working extremely hard for two years — sacrificing time with my friends and family ; spending 16+ hour days working on voter outreach, policy research and fundraising; emptying my entire life savings; and constantly trying to prove myself to voters — I lost my election.
For months afterwards, I felt an extreme sense of sadness, frustration, anger, guilt, humility and appreciation all at once. Because I knew many people had put a lot of faith and belife in me. They all put in a LOT of hours, brainpower, resources and energy into my campaign. And I felt I let them down.
But then I realized that my supporters were proud of the fact that my campaign was never just about winning. Instead, my campaign was about bringing new people into the process and elevating important issues like a $15 minimum wage, reproductive rights, aging in place, gun violence prevention, a comprehensive transportation infrastructure plan, and ways to close the opportunity gap.
As such — despite being the youngest in a crowded field of 32 great Democrats who had either (1) run for office before, (2) served on the Board of Education, (3) or had leadership positions within the County Government:
- I won more votes than 25 candidates (coming in top 25% of vote getters);
- I built an inclusive team — who were 80% women, 60% people of color, and 20% LGBTQ;
- I received the endorsements of the SEIU Local 500; two 2020 presidential candidates (Vice President Joe Biden and HUD Secretary Julián Castro); and more than 100 government officials from the Obama Administration — including White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough;
- And I refused money from developers, corporations and special interests — and was still able to earn the 2nd most local donations of all those running, with 56% of our donors giving less than $10.
This taught me that I made a difference, even though I did not win.
This is also proof that voters are not just looking at those with the most “traditional” experience or name recognition; but they also appreciate those who run an inclusive and exciting campaign, focused on issues.
I continue to stay engaged in my community and work on issues I would have pursued if elected. Because the fight for equal representation is not over.
I’ll be fighting for as long as I can and I hope you’ll join me.