Friday marked the end of candidate filing week for the 2021 election cycle, which is primarily for municipal offices like city councils, school boards and fire districts.
These are important positions and often places where people thinking about careers in elective office get their start. They pump new blood into the body politic which, to be brutally honest, can use a massive transfusion right about now.
New candidates and their new campaign staffs sometimes call with questions they think a person who has covered politics since the Stone Age will answer. Rookie mistake. Newspaper reporters aren’t paid to give advice, except in the pages of the newspaper.
But from time to time, Spin Control offers its 10 simple rules for surviving your first campaign. This is one of those times.
1. No whining. The public generally loves a winner and sympathizes with a loser but – with the possible exception of staunch supporters of the former president – it generally has no patience for whiners. This is doubly so when a candidate or campaign whines about something they were supposed to know or do, but didn’t, or if they get caught lying about their education, their job history or their criminal record.
2. Keep track of the money people give you. File your reports with the Public Disclosure Commission on time and online if that’s required. If you can’t figure out how to do it yourself, hire someone who can. If you don’t, we might not notice right away, but it’s a sure bet your opponents will and bring it up when it’s best for them and worst for you. When that happens, refer to Rule No. 1.
3. Have something to say. Don’t try to skate through interviews and debates with trite phrases like “children are our future.” If you can’t explain how you would ensure that future, what it will cost and how you’ll pay for it, voters are going to figure you’re an airhead. When that happens, remember Rule No. 1.
4. Know what the job entails. If you’re running for city council, voters probably don’t care about your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you’re running for school board, you might have an opinion on downtown or the state capital gains tax, but you’re not going to be able to do anything about it. Study the issues and talk about them.
5. Don’t refer to the news media as a single entity. It’s neither grammatically correct – media is a plural noun – or structurally accurate, as the different news outlets in Spokane have a mixture of local and national ownership. They don’t have a Zoom meeting every morning to decide what to cover. If you get caught doing something really stupid, however, it might seem like that when we all have a story that says you did something really stupid. Blaming “the media” at that point violates Rule No. 1.
6. Don’t say “I’m not a politician,” followed by some version of “I just want to do good things for the good people of our great community.” If you’re a candidate, you are de facto a politician. Own up to it and stop acting like that’s worse than saying you’re a serial killer or heroin pusher.
7. Time your troubles. If you make a big mistake on the same day as the governor closes all the schools or the Zags play in the Final Four, your problem might be covered in two paragraphs on page C6 of the local newspaper. Make a small mistake in the middle of the summer doldrums when the editors are hungry for news and it might be stripped across the front page with 2-inch headline type. Since there’s no way to know for sure when it’s a slow news day, the best rule is to never mess up. But all candidates do eventually so …
8. When you mess up, ‘fess up. Smart politicians admit their mistake, explain what they’re going to do to make sure it won’t happen again and move on. Stupid politicians hide, refuse to take phone calls or do interviews, then blame “the news media” for not telling their side of the story and the public for not understanding their situation. That means more stories on the mistake, and violates Rule No. 1.
9. Yard signs are expendable during a campaign and eyesores after the election. Almost every candidate loses yard signs during a campaign. Don’t call to tell us your opponent’s campaign is stealing them unless you have proof, because it’s more likely that they were taken by apolitical vandals. And if you have proof, you probably should be calling the police, not the newspaper. After the campaign, win or lose, go pick up your signs. To bury the hatchet with your opponent, offer to pick up their signs in one half of the district if they’ll pick up yours in the other, then meet for coffee and exchange signs.
10. It’s called “public office” for a reason. You’re applying for a job in which the voters are the hiring committee and the public will be your boss. If you don’t like dealing with nosy, pushy or unhappy people – not just while you’re attending a board or council meeting but maybe in the checkout line at Rosauers, grabbing a burger and fries at McDonald’s or waiting on a street corner until the crosswalk light changes – that’s OK. Just don’t run for office. If you do and have problems, which you definitely will, remember Rule 1.
With those rules in mind, Spin Control wishes the 2021 crop of candidates good luck. All of you deserve it, and some will really need it.