Jennie Baird and Liz Perry: Our campaign is designed to spur civic engagement and encourage more people to run for local office
Your town may not look exactly like ours, they write, but here are some key things to know to get more involved in local politics
Editor’s Note: Jennie Baird is a media and technology consultant. Liz Perry is the headmaster of a private school in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Both are residents of Greenwich running for its local governing body, the Representative Town Meeting. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.
This past February, energized by January’s women’s marches around the world, we launched a civic engagement campaign in our hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut. Our action focused on our nonpartisan town council, called the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), which happens to be the biggest local governing body in the country.
With all 230 seats, usually uncontested, up for re-election this year, the March On Greenwich group decided to educate the community about the body and encourage first-timers to run for a seat. Ultimately, over 110 candidates petitioned to get onto the ballot. About half were first-time candidates recruited through our efforts. Over 60% were women.
We’re part of a nationwide trend. According to Emily’s List, more than 20,000 women have contacted them about running for office since last November’s election.
This Tuesday, November 7, elections for our local government in Greenwich will be more strongly contested than most of us can remember. In the words of our town clerk, “In all my years, I never remember so many petitions coming in.” That very fact has raised awareness and interest in local issues – plus a swirl of backlash. There may be something similar going on in your town – or maybe you’ll be the one to make it happen next Election Day.
With that in mind, here are 10 things we learned that can help you lead a political action in your community. Your town may not look exactly like ours, but while every community is unique, these aspects of local politics and community-building hold true:
1. Meet people where they are
No matter how enthusiastic you are or how important your cause is, not everyone’s going to get on board – even your closest friends. That’s OK.
Political activism can feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially if it’s new to you. Accept that with an open heart and continue to invite the less enthusiastic, but don’t pressure them. In our action, some women wholeheartedly supported our efforts from the outset, but they had commitments that prevented them from showing up.
Everyone operates according to their own schedules and motivations. Don’t alienate anyone; many come back around.
2. Making people uncomfortable IS the work
It’s hard to stay motivated when people are attacking you. And trust us, people will attack you. But that’s exactly when you know you’re doing something right. As women, we’re socialized to be peacekeepers, but even a relatively mild action by a group of women (we are nonpartisan and dedicated to civic engagement, hardly a radical agenda) may be seen as threatening. Stay positive, and don’t take the bait when attacked.
3. When there’s a misogynist, use it for motivation
We weren’t looking for a fight, but one of the issues that initially mobilized our group was the arrest of a local government leader, charged with fourth-degree sexual assault after he was caught on camera saying, “I love this new world. I don’t have to be politically correct any more!” He then allegedly groped a female town employee. The guy didn’t step down from his seat and wasn’t encouraged to do so by his colleagues. When we tried to make a statement at a town meeting, we were denied the floor.
Local leaders have demonstrated tacit support of this type of behavior. Other vocal individuals in town have formed a kind of new style “He-Man Woman Haters Club,” targeting women petitioners. These characters keep us motivated.
4. Make new friends… but keep the old
Just about everyone we work with on this action is someone we met since February. But with Election Day fast approaching, old friends who weren’t interested before are now hosting candidate meet-and-greets and getting the word out to their personal networks. And we know they’ll cast a vote November 7.
And remember: you’re in politics now, so everyone you meet is a potential new friend or ally. Which is important because…
5. It really does take a village
In addition to our day jobs, women carry much of the emotional workload for our families. Over the course of our local campaign, candidates have been caring for spouses, children and parents. We’ve packed kids off for college, navigated career changes and challenges, and even buried loved ones.
During this process, we’ve shifted roles in the “organization” based on who had time and emotional bandwidth. No guilt, no finger pointing. (On that note, we set a rule from the beginning that you didn’t have to clean your house to host a meeting).
6. No good deed goes unpunished
It takes a significant amount of time and energy to participate in local government. The work is generally unpaid and done with the best of intentions. And though it’s hard to accept, it’s a given that for your good work, you’ll likely face the wrath of someone.
7. Read your local papers!
If you check CNN or The Wall Street Journal for news every day, you probably know more about what’s happening at the national level than in your own back yard. As one local official scolded us, “You and your friends need to put down The New York Times and pick up the Greenwich Time!”
Your local newspaper, Patch site, neighborhood blogs and even NextDoor.com are good ways to learn about the issues in your community and get to know who’s who.
8. It really is harder for girls
Among the many biases female candidates face, name recognition, especially important in local elections, may be the most practical. A candidate’s name appears on the ballot as it appears in voter registration rolls, but many women go both personally and professionally by a nickname.
It’s worse for women who are known socially by their spouse’s surname, but who are registered to vote, and hence listed on the ballot, under a maiden name.
Even women who’ve kept their maiden names often tend to be known in their communities by their children’s last names. “Oh, you’re Bobby Jones’s mom? I’m Sally Smith’s mom!” One of us literally wrote our children’s surnames on our campaign materials, so people would be able to connect us with the person they know from school, basketball teams, and the like.
9. Consider yourself a winner – no matter what
On Election Day, the deck is stacked in favor of incumbents.
But win or lose, voters respond to positive energy (despite what the last election may tell you). Be excited to run and happy to know, that no matter what happens, you’ve changed the dialogue, educated your neighbors and raised awareness. Successful politicians and activists are not born overnight. Just by running, you’re paving the way for others and letting your agenda be heard.
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10. Show up on Election Day!
Turnout for off-year, municipal elections is typically very low, so your vote matters more in a local election. Local elections can turn on six votes. Really. Make sure you get to the polls on November 7 – and remind your friends to vote, too!