Here's how to run for office if you want to fight back against Trump

P.G. Sittenfeld
opinion
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Following the jolting election of Donald Trump, many people, and especially many fellow millennials, have told me they plan to get more deeply involved in politics. That is a welcome sentiment. The will of millennials did not prevail this election cycle, as seen in the map that went viral showing that if millennials alone decided the outcome, Hillary would have won.

So the question now is: What can we do about it?

Mic has aggregated some suggestions here. One of the biggest and boldest actions is for more millennials to actually run for office. Having run twice successfully for city-wide races in Cincinnati, and once unsuccessfully for statewide office in Ohio, I can say that while it is not an easy process, it is exhilarating and important.

The need for good people and fresh voices has never been more urgent. For those who decide to take that leap, what follows are practical tips for first-time candidates, whether you've set your sights on the school board or the Senate.

1) Know why you're running: This might seem painfully obvious, but a lot of candidates don't really think this part through. Too often, the answer is some version of, "Because I want to be an elected official." That alone is not a good or inspiring rationale. Ideally, the answer to this question should be about the impact you want to have. For example, "I want to address climate change," "I want to reduce gun violence" or "I want to alleviate poverty." Preferably, something in your background or skill-set should make you a good fit for advancing that agenda. 

In my case, I had spent several years working to bring more community partnerships into our public schools, so I believed I could offer a needed voice for collaboration between City Hall and the school district. That was a big part of what I successfully ran on. 

P.G. Sittenfeld  P.G. Sittenfeld

2) Build your team: While only your name will appear on the ballot, campaigns are fundamentally team sports. Between barnstorming your district, engaging the media, raising funds and many other day-to-day activities, a candidate simply can't do it all by himself or herself. Depending on the race, your team might range from family members who are helping as volunteers to a more sprawling operation of paid staff. Either way, the work these people do will reflect directly on you and will determine what you're able to accomplish. Choose them carefully and don't take them for granted, because you also never know how those relationships will unfold.

I had a young intern in my first race named Walker Schiff, who helped out as a volunteer the summer before he went off to college. He was sharp and hungry, but admittedly young at the time. Fast-forward five years to when he'd finished school and cut his teeth for a campaign cycle, we teamed up again. This go-round, he ended up managing my campaign for U.S. Senate.

3) Hone your message: Having a compelling reason for running and being knowledgeable on a broad array of issues are not the same thing as having a message. Your message is the singular thing, packaged in a crisp, concise, punchy and authentic way, that you want voters to associate with you when they head into the voting booth. Taking the essence of who you are, what you believe and what ideas you will champion and boiling them down to 7 words or 3 words or even 1 word isn't easy. But that's the format that will allow it to stick. 

For example, as a result of my being a pretty kinetic and productive councilman in my first term, our message in my re-election campaign was "On the Move, Getting Things Done." I literally ran around the city in our campaign commercials. The brand was accurate, authentic and stuck in the minds of voters.

Source: PG Sittenfeld/YouTube

4) Constantly seek feedback, including from people who disagree with you: Too many people enter politics with cynical, closed-minded views. In reality, you'll be greatly served by being open-minded and by hearing directly and often from the people you wish to represent, including those whose votes you won't earn. Campaigns can become isolated echo chambers if you aren't in regular touch with "non-political" people who are busy simply navigating the challenges of daily life.

5) Yes, money matters: For many candidates, asking people for money is an understandably uncomfortable activity. But here's the reality: If you have the best message in the world and don't have the resources to spread that message, you're not going to get very far. What you have to remember is that you're not asking people to give you money; you're asking them to invest in their values. You are a vessel for those values. You need to be asking everyone you know (and plenty of people you don't know) to support your vision. 

In my own fundraising efforts, I've called everyone from my second-grade teacher to distant cousins and total strangers. If they say no, respect that decision and don't take it personally. One final tip: The best candidates excel not just at asking people for a contribution, but asking them for a specific amount.

6) Prepare for it to be all-consuming: The exhilarating, and overwhelming, thing about a political campaign is that there's always something you can be doing, literally every second of the day. A new voter you can be meeting. A new policy idea you can be crafting. A new donor you can be soliciting. Even when the campaign isn't directly occupying your time, it will likely begin occupying your thoughts. Leaving the room before every hand is shaken, ducking out of "call time" before you've hit your fundraising goal, wanting to have "normal" weekends; all of these things mean that your opponent is likely gaining the upper hand. 

In my first campaign, I did so many honk-and-waves (that strange campaign ritual where your volunteers hold signs at a busy street intersection while you wave at passing traffic) that a doctor diagnosed me with elbow tendonitis. Rather than fighting the all-consuming nature of campaigns, embrace it. You're on a crusade and you won't be stopped!

P.G. Sittenfeld  P.G. Sittenfeld

7) Getting the media's attention isn't easy: We all wish we lived in a world where making thoughtful policy proposals would attract significant press attention. But that's simply not the case. In most campaigns, the media is most interested in money, polls and conflict. That certainly doesn't mean you should take the low road or not be yourself. Just understand that the kind of stories that might reflect your aptitude for governing aren't necessarily the same ingredients the media is looking for to feed the beast. 

Here's one example: Since I share initials with one Cincinnati's largest companies (P&G), in my first race, we put stickers on bars of Ivory Soap and sticks of Old Spice deodorant that read: "Council needs a fresh scent — Vote PG!" We passed them out on Fountain Square. Corny? You bet. But did it get coverage? Sure did! The good news is that social media presents an increasingly powerful way to share your story and your ideas in a way that the media might not.

8) Credibility is transferable: As a first-time candidate, in most cases, people won't know a whole lot about you. That's what a campaign is for. And especially if you're a younger candidate, you might not be as established in your career. That's where the good word of already established leaders can carry real weight. Endorsements from current or former elected officials are good. But don't overlook lots of other people, such as faith leaders, activists, bloggers and civic volunteers, who have a constituency of their own. When they use their credibility to say they're backing you, the people in their orbit will take notice.

9) You have to really, truly believe you will win: Of the many people whom a campaign touches, the one person everyone takes their cues from is the candidate. If you don't project a belief that you can prevail, no one else will believe it. So, yes, be pragmatic in the given race and endeavor you take on. But once you're in, have a plan, stick to it, rally the troops around you and give it your absolute all.

P.G. Sittenfeld  P.G. Sittenfeld

10) Don't let people discourage you from even trying: If you're looking for reasons not to run for office, they're abundant: It's grueling, stressful, expensive and you might lose. Naysayers will want to amplify the reasons why you shouldn't run. Because of this, a lot of people who have considered running for office never do. 

I was 25 years old when I first started running for a city-wide seat in Cincinnati. A lot of people said, "P.G., you're too young and you can't win." They pointed out that our current congressman had run for City Council twice and lost before getting on a third time, and the same was true of a former Cincinnati Mayor's initial attempts to win a seat on Council. Rather than listening to the doubters and critics, we went out there and built a great team, had a clear, resonate message and ran an impassioned race. When the votes were tallied on election night, I became the youngest person in Cincinnati ever elected to a seat at City Hall. 

Here's the bottom line: If you want to run, go for it, haters be damned! There's a lot at stake, the process is an exciting one where you learn a lot and forge incredible bonds and you have a perspective to offer that would be valuable in the public arena. 

So run, baby, run — and best of luck!