What I Learned From the Campaign Trail: Running for State Representative in Massachusetts

Anna in her campaign canvassing gear.
Anna in her campaign canvassing gear.

“If they have the money and we have the people, we cannot win by preaching to the choir.” –Jane McAlevey

This quote has motivated almost everything I’ve done for the last few years. Jane’s point is that we can’t just rely on mobilizing the people who are already engaged in the struggle; if we want to win, we have to engage far more people. It’s as true in politics as it is in union organizing.

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez talks about this in her recent video about the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her vacancy on the Supreme Court. AOC reminds us that when she first won her primary in 2018, she was down 25 points in the polls. Why? Because polls only ask “likely voters,” and she got a ton of people to vote who normally don’t vote. “The amount of people under 40 matched the number of voters above 60. That is almost unheard of in politics.” She goes on to say, “That’s the kind of work that we need to do in every pocket of this country between now and the November election to save our democracy.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’ve spent my last few years training people in a model of political organizing that is much more effective at getting progressives elected in the kind of numbers we need to change policy. In this model, the elected official has a crucial role to play; I believe that it is the duty of every elected official to bring more people into the political process — to build the movement.

 

Anna canvassing on her bike
Anna stops to take a photo while canvassing on her bike.

 

When I decided to run for office, it was to build the movement. Very few elected officials do a good job in this regard. In my podcast, I interviewed many state reps. One of them commented that in any one district, there are only a small number of people who actively engage in state politics, and those people are rarely the ones most impacted by policy. How do elected officials engage the disengaged? How do they reach the vast majority of people who will never show up to their office hours or to a town hall, and who may not even vote? The sad truth is that they don’t.

Most elected officials focus their energy on other people in positions of power. They court other elected officials, heads of non-profits, or others in leadership positions, while holding poorly publicized office hours for the few people who feel entitled to go visit their state rep/mayor/Congress-person.

If we are to save our planet from climate catastrophe, to overhaul our criminal justice system to ensure that Black Lives Matter, to join the rest of the world in providing health care as a human right, or to reverse our skyrocketing inequality, we must have elected officials who are movement builders.

What I learned from running for office is that there’s one thing I love even more than training others to bring people into the political process — it’s doing it myself! Many people warned me that I might get burnt out by running for office. I myself have seen it happen — I’ve known good activists who ran for office and then dropped out of everything after their campaign ended. And people have asked me in the weeks since the election if I’ve “recovered.” Well, I didn’t need any recovery. I felt more energized the day after and the week after the election than I’ve felt in years! If anything, I sorely miss knocking on doors — I miss walking outside most of the day, I miss talking to people about politics, and I especially miss the actual “bringing people into the political process,” where the person I’m talking to gets interested in something they didn’t know about and wants to get more involved. I can’t wait to get back to it, this time as an organizer, and perhaps at some later date as a candidate again.

 

Anna and her campaign manager talking with volunteers of her grassroots campaign.
Anna and her campaign manager talking with volunteers of her grassroots campaign.

 

There’s another aspect of building the movement that I loved — building a team of people who are very active. My campaign team was just as energized by the campaign, and we are all excited to continue building the movement together. Engaging people in the political process isn’t just getting new voters to the polls; it is a whole funnel of engagement where everyone moves up a level.

And what I’m most excited about is that now that the campaign is over, I can focus on engaging the people I’ve always been most excited to engage — the most vulnerable, under-served people in the district. To win a campaign you have to target likely voters, who tend to be the best-served people: white-collar workers & homeowners who are less likely to be people of color. Now that the campaign is over, I can focus on the people we didn’t reach out to, to listen to their personal stories and work together to elevate a political agenda that centers their needs.

There is one thing I did not realize about running for office: win or lose, you are in a much better position to be an organizer, to engage people in politics, and to build the movement. Candidates who lost are in a great position — they have a team of people dedicated to them and their platform, thousands of people who voted for them (people who know their name and trust their politics), an email list of people interested in what they have to say, and a list of donors willing to support them and their platform.

With this in mind, The Incorruptibles is retooling our Candidates and Electeds training to fit this specific need. It will focus on the kinds of movement-building activities that you can’t do during a campaign, engaging the disengaged, identifying organic leaders, listening to vulnerable populations — and it will all be made specific to COVID. My team and I will be going through each step of the training here in this district, and we’ll incorporate everything we learn back into the course.

If you’re as excited as I am about this, please support our work.

 

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