In the fall of 2009 I became a liberal local politician in a rural Wisconsin county and the following spring I was elected as a county commissioner.* It wasn’t something I set out to do, and it’s outside both my main area of expertise as a science fiction and fantasy author and my comfort zone. But it’s an important job and it’s critical to have people who share my values doing it. It’s also not nearly as scary as I expected it to be and it’s a big first step toward higher office for those who feel the calling. Right now we need those people more than ever and I’m hoping that you might be one of them.
In service of convincing you that you’re ready to take a shot at it, I’m going to talk about what it means to be an elected official at the local level. The first step is getting on the ballot. Here in my ward that means collecting ballot access signatures from thirty residents and having them verified by the county clerk’s office. This means knocking on doors, which is probably the scariest part of the process for me since I have light OCD, which is an anxiety disorder.
It’s no fun, but it’s also A) necessary, and B) something you can get help with. I’ve done the routine myself a couple of times, but this last year I got someone else to collect the signatures. If you’re in a place where there is a local Democratic party organization, chances are good someone there is willing to help, especially if you’re running in one of the many local elections where a conservative incumbent is running unopposed.
That’s one of the big reasons I’m writing this: I want you to take a shot at getting elected. In too many places the conservatives are kicking our asses because we simply aren’t showing up. We need to be contesting every office and not just because we want better government at every level, but because we need people in those entry level offices to create an experienced team of citizen legislators to run in the next tier of state and federal elections.
The conservatives understand this and have for years. One reason we’re getting so badly beat up today is because they figured out long ago that the way to win is to contest every election and to do the thankless school and library and county board jobs to create relationships and build a movement. They have been doing it since Goldwater, and they have been tireless. If we want to be the resistance, we have to do it too.
It’s hard work, it can be tedious, and I really didn’t want to do it any more than you do. But the person who recruited me to run made a simple pitch: Is there anyone in this ward you trust to make these decisions more than you trust yourself? I squirmed around a bit and tried to get off the hook, but ultimately I decided there wasn’t. If I wanted liberal local government, I had to go ahead and become that government, because I didn’t see anyone else who was more liberal in my ward who was willing to do the job.
The specifics of going from ballot access to getting elected vary wildly from place to place and office to office. So, I’m going to skip over pretty much all of that by saying you’ll have to talk to your local party and potential constituents to find out what you need to do for the specific office you’re thinking of running for, and I’ll move on to the governing part of the job.
This is the terrifying part of things for so many people who are thinking about running for office—how am I going to handle making big decisions about policy and budgets when I don’t know anything about the details of local government? AIEEE! Well, let me start by saying: you’ve got this. Really. The vast majority of the job is sitting in meetings, learning how to make those decisions, discussing the details—including oversight of money spent—and then voting on policy.
Now, you’re going to be better at this right out of the gate than I was for the simple reason that you’re going to have time to think about the job and prepare yourself. I was a last minute recruit, so I had no time to do the things you’re going to do, like actually go to a few meetings of whatever government entity you’re running for, and talk to people who have done the job or who have observed it being done. But even if you don’t have that opportunity to familiarize yourself with the process and work, it can be done. I know because I went straight from a standing start to the deep end, and you can too.
In my county, the bulk of the policy work happens in subcommittees, and by happenstance I landed a seat on the Highway Committee, which has the largest budget of any committee in the county at around $13,000,000. The five members of the committee, in consultation with the public works director, are responsible for that budget. When I arrived on the committee I had basically zero knowledge of the main topics at hand. But—and here’s the important thing—that was expected.
There is a regular turnover of committee members, and an extensive knowledge of road repair and construction, equipment purchases, and snow removal is not something that is assumed. In my first year I spent a lot of time learning about various types of pavement and enormous machines at a rate that felt like drinking from a fire hose. But the other committee members and the public works director were always willing to answer questions and help me understand what we were doing so that I could make informed decisions about policy and the public purse.
It was scary at first, but it was also a lot of fun learning new things and knowing that the work I was doing had a direct positive impact on the citizens of my county and on everyone driving on our roads, including the interstate, which in Wisconsin is maintained in part by the counties. I’ve learned all sorts of things about pavement and salt mixtures and enormous machines. I now understand how rural bridges and transit—another responsibility of the highway committee in my county—are funded in conjunction with federal and state agencies. This is one of the places where my work as an author has most helped me become a better public servant. I spend an enormous amount of time reading and digesting research materials for later use in my fiction.
Seven years ago I was lost at my first highway meeting and certain I was making a fool of myself as I asked about a million questions. Today I am the second-most senior member of that committee and I am one of the people answering those questions. Here again my background has given me tools that help me to perform the job. As an author I have lot of practice at taking complex ideas and big data sets and rendering them into something that is easy for other people to process. Because much of my education was in theater and performance I can usually do this verbally as well as through the written word. A personal background that exposed me to a wide range of cultural experience means I can often smooth communication between people from different backgrounds and translate from one set of jargon to another.
There are things I don’t like or that I find difficult. I’m not a fan of meetings. One of the delights of being an author is that most of my working time is spent home alone with cats. Despite coming out of theater, I am not a huge fan of public speaking, and sometimes I have to take a half a lorazepam beforehand—especially on more contentious issues. There is a lot of listening involved, which is fun when it involves learning, but less so when it’s the unofficial local version of a filibuster. There is a significant time and opportunity cost. Though I do get paid for meetings, it’s not much and it all comes out of time that could be spent writing or otherwise working on my primary career. In the case of my board, the time commitment runs from 5 hours of meetings and an hour of homework a month up to 11 hours of meetings and 5 hours of homework a month, with the average being closer to the low end of that.
Despite the parts that I don’t enjoy and the costs in time and lost opportunities, I am in my 4th term as a county commissioner and I intend to run again next year. It hasn’t been easy, but it is entirely manageable, and it’s important. So is the work I do as the county representative on the Historical Society Board and as one of the highway reps on the Aging and Disability Resources Center Transportation Advisory Board.
Being an elected official at the local level is important work and it’s work that you could be doing too. Look at your local offices for someplace that you could contribute and don’t let fear of the unknown keep you from jumping in. You can make a difference and I guarantee it’s not impossible. It’s not even all that difficult if you’re willing to put in some hard work.
I don’t want to slide over the fact I have distinct structural advantages in getting elected and in being taken seriously as an elected official. I’m a middle-aged, straight, white male, which means that I fit the standard profile for holding power in America. I’m visibly physically fit, and have formal training in both public speaking—a degree in theater—and in written communication. Basically, I have buckets of privilege, and there’s no question that has helped me at every stage of the process.
But I also have a number of disadvantages for this particular office and region. Start with the fact that I’m a liberal, visibly-out atheist who writes books that include everything from addiction to murder and copious amounts of swearing. I am politically outspoken online and I write microfiction on a daily basis that would give any opponent plenty of ammunition. When I was first elected I was twenty years younger than the average County Commissioner and I am still the “kid” on the board. I am significantly farther to the left than most if not all of my fellow commissioners. I am an urban-oriented outsider in a rural county that is overwhelmingly represented by people with deep roots in the community.
I am not what you would expect to see in a county commissioner in a rural Wisconsin county. For that matter, I am not what many of the other commissioners expected. I know the chair of the highway committee had significant doubts about how I would do on his committee when I arrived, for many of the reasons I mentioned above, and that he shared those concerns with the chair of the board at the time. I know because he told me so when he stepped down recently. He also told me that I had surprised him and turned out to be a good committee member.
So, don’t let yourself be convinced that you’re unelectable. That was my original assumption, yet here I am. Yes, I’m in a student ward in a college town, but it’s still Menomonie, Wisconsin. Now, every one of you is going to have a different set of challenges and advantages in running for and holding local office, but I have faith that you can do this.
Take it from me, if you want to get involved in local politics, and you’re willing to work a bit beyond your comfort zone, the opportunities are there. I’ve been there and I know what it takes to do the job. You’re not going to turn the world around tomorrow by stepping forward and taking on a role in local government, but it’s a place to work toward bending the arc of history, and it’s the best possible launching point for those of you who want to move on to state and national politics. I wish you success and, if you can get yourself elected, I know you’ve got this.
Please consider running for office. We need you.
* In my county we call them county supervisors, but I’m going with the more common term for clarity.
© 2017 by Kelly McCullough