So You Want to Run for Office? by Mike Cognac

By at June 2, 2011 | 4:55 pm | Print

So You Want to Run for Office? by  Mike Cognac

So you want to run for office, huh?  Actually I was initially going to title this article “So you want to be an elected official?” but realized that not everyone runs to win.  There as many reasons for running as there are candidates.  While most are “in it to win it”, some are in it to make a point, to get a message out, to extract revenge, to split another candidate’s support or purely for the ego rush that is seeing their name in the paper or on a ballot.

Whatever your reason for running, you should be clear with, if with no one else, yourself, about what that reason is and organize your campaign to insure that you have the best chance of achieving that goal.  For the purposes of the rest of this article I’m going to run with the idea that you have an abiding drive to serve your community, state or nation as an elected official and that you are, indeed, in it to win it.

This conversation is one that, of necessity, you need to have with yourself as a prospective candidate.  But it is far from the only one.  If you go down this road, you’re about to find out just how many of these internal conversations you’re going to have.  Depending on whether you’re running to serve on the governing board of a small rural community or for the United States Congress, you’ll have supporters and volunteers, consultants and campaign staff.  These people can advise, assist, pound pavement, get signs out, wear T-Shirts, make calls, but they can’t make the central decisions about who you are and what you want, these decisions, tough as they can be, are yours alone to make.  Politics can be a very lonely game.

There are some other fundamental decisions that you need to make, in the quiet of your mind.  What is it that you believe?  This answer lives hand in hand with the “Why I’m Running” answer.  The context of this answer needs to resonate with your core constituency (more on this later) and with enough persuadable voters to get you over the top.  It could be that you’re incensed with your school district’s policy on paddling, so you’re running for School Board, or that you’re mortified that, in your heavily retirement aged district, your congressperson has repeatedly voted to cut Social Security.  Whatever the fundamental driving policy force  behind your decision, know it cold and be prepared to talk about it passionately.  Remember, the key is that it must resonate with voters.  Anger over an obscure local stormwater management proposal (unless the community is up in arms about it) is not likely to move your voters to the poll on Election Day.

A huge personal decision you need to make, in deciding whether this is a good idea to begin with is whether your family is on board with the race.  Ok, ok, this really should be first or second, but it’s critical.  Running for office is exhausting as a full time endeavor.  It’s frantic if you’re holding down a job while you’re doing it and if your spouse and kids aren’t completely on board and ready for a period of time where they won’t get to see much of you outside of rubber chicken dinners at the local Volunteer Fire Department, then, frankly, this campaign is going to be no fun for you.  Or, better said, less fun than it otherwise would be.

The great golfer Greg Norman once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, because I read it a long time ago, that “If you want to be successful, you have to be brutally honest with yourself.”  Truer words were never spoken.  In the context of this coming race, you need to be sure that you are ready to do what it takes to run a successful campaign.  Ask yourself “Am I ready to miss my kid’s Little League games so that I can knock on 500 doors every Saturday?”, “Am I prepared to be on the telephone every day for hours on end asking everyone I know, and a lot of people that I don’t , for money “(these races are expensive, folks, don’t kid yourself)?”

If the answers to these questions are affirmative and make sense, you’re ready to start thinking about putting a strategic campaign plan together that will win you this race.  As a former elected official, candidate who’s won and lost and who has run or consulted on campaigns from local office to Congress, I can tell you that nothing is more exhausting, or exhilarating, than a campaign for the opportunity to serve the people.  I’ll be writing more on campaign topics in the future, but for now my message is, prepare yourself, you’re going to need it!

Mike Cognac is a former Councilman and Mayor in North Carolina.He has consulted on local, state and federal campaigns, has been a candidate for state office and is a Presidential Elector and Fellow of the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership.  He can be reached at

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