I Ran for Office and Won

Four first-time candidates explain how.

Clockwise from top left: Juana Matias, Patsy Terrell, Brett Parker, Letitia Clark.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via Juana Matias, Patsy Terrell, Brett Parker, Letitia Clark.

You—yes, you—should be running for political office. But what would it entail, exactly? Slate spoke to four first-time candidates who won their races in November about their experiences campaigning and their thoughts on seeking office. These excerpts from our conversations with them have been edited and condensed.

Patsy Terrell, a social media consultant and blogger, defeated a 25-year incumbent Republican and former conservative Democrat in the Kansas House who wrote the state’s 1996 ban on same-sex marriage.

After I filed the paperwork to run, my best friend and I were walking out of the building and he said, “Gosh, you seem kind of overwhelmed by it all at the moment.” And I said: “Well, I’ve just done something that forever changes my identity. I will now forever be referred to either as Patsy Terrell, who once ran for the state legislature, or Patsy Terrell, who was a representative.”

You don’t decide what your core values are; they just are what they are. And my core values are that I want the world to be fair. And I know not everything is fair—life is not fair—but government should be fair. And it should be just. And to my way of thinking, my opponent was using her position to make the world less fair and less just, and that just offended me. And so I decided I was going to try to do something about that. And what I decided to do was run for office.

I have no political experience, but I do have a background in marketing and advertising and public relations. All of those were very useful skills in running for office. I could do a lot of graphic design work and that sort of thing. But politics is not a solitary activity. You have to have a team of people around you who believe enough in you to devote time and energy to getting you elected. And you know, some people will give you two hours on a Saturday afternoon, and some will give you a tremendous amount of their time. I had a volunteer who knocked on about 2,500 doors for me. And that kind of engaged volunteer can make or break a campaign, because there’s just no way you can do it all on your own. Now everyone I meet tells me how much they believed in me, but when I first started this, there were a handful of people who believed it could be done. And they put a tremendous amount of effort into it.

I did not hire a professional adviser, other than the guy who’s now the minority leader in the house. He really mentored me along. And there were other people who gave me a lot of advice, but I didn’t hire a professional to do it. I would have loved to have hired someone to manage things, but then I would have had to raise more money to pay that person—the community I live in is a little over 40,000 people, and the district I represent is a working-class district, and I just didn’t think there was a lot of money there to raise. And a lot of groups who want to support various causes are not interested in newbies. A lot of them will just flat-out tell you they’re only going to give money to incumbents. That’s the hurdle you’ve got to get past. Now, it’s not insurmountable by any means, it can be done. But it requires some attention.

Brett Parker, an English teacher, beat a two-term incumbent Republican in a Kansas House race in November.

The extent of my political experience before had been being a voter and just doing some entry-level volunteering on a campaign—knocking on a few doors and making a couple of phone calls. So I hadn’t had to think through how you put together a campaign team and structure. There’s a lot to learn, but on the other hand, no one has a monopoly on how to do it well. And bright people can figure it out and put together a winning team. You don’t have to have 50 years of experience to run a local campaign well. You just have to learn as much as you can in a hurry.

In Kansas, our State House seats are pretty small and relatively inexpensive to run for compared with other states. I was in a position where the office I was seeking wasn’t an insurmountable thing. The conventional wisdom is that to run for a contested House seat in Kansas, you need to raise at least $20,000; $30,000 would be better; $50,000 is great. So running for State House in an area like mine is a little more feasible; city council and school board and those kind of things are probably an easier pill to swallow right up front.

The conventional and not-everyone’s-favorite way to spend their time is finding other people who’ve donated to like causes in the past, dialing numbers, and asking them for money. I probably didn’t take advantage of that to the extent that most successful candidates do. Reaching out to friends and family and using social media ended up paying dividends. One of the things that I didn’t know at the time would really help with fundraising was just getting face to face with people—you build credibility that way and then those who don’t know you but are inclined to vote for you or donate to a cause like yours feel more comfortable than with you calling as a stranger on the phone.

I’m a teacher and I wasn’t going to step away from that for campaigning—now that I’ve won, I can take some time away from that to serve, but I wasn’t going to step away from my classroom for a full year just to run a campaign that may not be successful. I was signing up most of my free time for a good 12 months for campaigning. You have to be able to balance a little bit and save time for the people in your life. I’m single and I don’t have kids, so I had a lot more flexibility. I think that’s the biggest hurdle for people to clear. I think it’s daunting to run, but for me, what it ultimately came down to was, given the direction of our state, and as disappointed as I had been with the last election, I knew I would regret it ultimately if I didn’t. And that really overcame a lot of the challenges that I knew I would face.

Juana Matias, a 29-year-old Dominican immigrant, attorney, and head of a family-run construction company, defeated an incumbent Democrat in the primary for the 16th Essex District seat in the Massachusetts State House before running unopposed in November’s general election.

Local control of our school district was taken away from us five years ago. So we’re the only district in the Commonwealth that didn’t have control over public schools. We have one of the highest crime rates. We have the highest unemployment rate. So for me, it was so important that we had someone in that position who could really advocate and advocate effectively. I made the very, very difficult decision to run, and not just to run, but to take out an incumbent who had been in public office for many, many years.

Everything from making the decision to actually putting the team together was a challenge. And being a woman in my community where you see machismo—usually men are the ones who go for these kinds of positions—made it even more difficult. I went into it not really having an established political name, having no political funds to try to take on an incumbent, having no team in place, and never having been a candidate. I questioned myself in the beginning, but what motivated me was what was at stake. I got involved with Emerge—they gave me a boot camp training and I utilized that.

You have to look at what the needs are in your community. What is your message? What are your values? And how do you get that across to your fellow residents in your district? I knew that employment was very important; I knew that public schools were very important; and I understood the political climate I found myself in.

MassEquality, Planned Parenthood, and the Women’s Political Caucus—getting organizations behind you doesn’t just bring you support financially. They get boots on the ground. They get people knocking on doors, and they get people working on our behalf. I had a small team of volunteers who came in day in and day out. They did the hard work of hitting the doors, and that’s the most important thing you can do if you’re a new candidate who is not known. You have to be willing to put on some sneakers. I did it seven days a week. You have to hit the doors and introduce yourself.

Letitia Clark is director of public affairs, marketing, and government relations for the Coast Community College District in Southern California. In November, she won one of three seats on the city council of Tustin, in traditionally red Orange County, against a slate of three conservative candidates.

For most women especially, everyone assumes there has to be some burning issue that brings you to run for office—there has to be something just tragic or something very specific. In many ways, I was deterred by that. People weren’t asking my male opponents that. My direct opponent was an attorney, and people just thought, “Oh, this is natural for you, you should want to get in, this makes sense for you.” But I think that’s just because of our culture. We don’t tell our young girls that, you know, you could be a senator, you could be president. We’re not saying that when they’re young and they’re talkative and they’re very good with people. And so, I think when people see young women running that have a lot of other things going on—I have a family; I have a job that I’m passionate about, a busy job—they think, “There’s no way she would put this into the equation of her life unless there was something that she wanted to die on the cross for.” It wasn’t like that for me—just saying that I wanted to serve, I wanted to volunteer, I wanted to make a difference for some groups, wasn’t good enough. But that really is why I did decide to run.

We covered every base. We doubled the amount of money we thought we could raise. We had a really good grassroots canvassing portion of the campaign and a lot of endorsements, and it’s a small town—we’re only at about 80,000 people in the city. I knew that there would be some dynamics that would make me an underdog. I was the only person of color, the only woman, the only Democrat running. And the city has a long history of not having progressive candidates be successful in running and winning. But in many ways, I think it all worked out in my favor. There were three Caucasian men running as a team against me, so the press kind of took note of that. All people could see was this team that all looked the same and this outside person who looked completely different. Even Trump supporters—they liked Trump because he was an outsider. Some of those people voted for me because I was viewed as an outsider. And some who voted for Hillary wanted to see another woman on the council or a person of color on the council.

Emerge helped me a lot because they put out the blueprint for me and for all of us who were going through the training. And then, after you see the blueprint and you see how hard it is to build this part, you see how easy it is to build the other part, then you decide, “Do I really want to go into building this after I’ve seen what it’s going to take?” Having that all out in front of you is important. So I’d recommend that anybody who’s definitely considering running to outline all of the steps of it—it means fundraising; it means sacrificing time with your family; it means public speaking.

The first thing I did was talk to my family. I sat them all down. I’m a single parent so I had to sit down my parents and my siblings because they all helped out with my kids. I sat down the guy I’m dating, too. I told them what I wanted to do, and I asked them if they’d be willing to support me—that meant picking up the kids, cooking dinner sometimes, helping with homework, giving me time to take a nap and things like that if I needed to. Also coming to events, asking friends and colleagues for fundraising money, making sure that they were staying out of trouble and not racking up a bunch of parking tickets. All of that. And after about two or three hours of discussing the pros and cons, all of them said, “Yes, we’re all on board, we’re behind you 100 percent.” And once I had that, then I could move forward.

The next thing I did was find a professional. I knew I was going to take a lot of time away from work. I had no intention of quitting my job, so I needed to find a campaign manager who was going to help me with my campaign, and not just any campaign manager. I picked up a professional I was comfortable with and highly regarded in the community, and I trusted that she would help me raise the money to pay her eventually and she did. We thought that we couldn’t raise above $25,000 because that was the norm for council candidates, but we raised $50,000 so I was able to pay her and cover all of the mail that we needed to do—we did more mail pieces than most candidates have done in years. And what I learned from her is that elections are definitely more a science than an art— there are certain things that you can do to be sure that you reach as many people as possible. It becomes a numbers game at a certain point as long as you have the right message and you’re relating to people in the community.

I had to compartmentalize myself. I thought, OK, I’m a woman, so I have to talk to all the women’s’ groups about how important it is to get a woman elected. I’m an African American so I have to talk to every African-American group—even if they’re not in my city. I went to every black church in the community, because they wanted to see someone who was African American and had a good shot at running. Even if they couldn’t go out and vote for me, they could support me financially. I went to every group that I thought I could fit into. I went to the alumni association of my high school and talked to them about how I grew up in the area and how important it was to have someone who was raised here be a voice on the council. So every pocket that I kind of fit into, I went back to those groups and told them why that portion of me was so important and needed to be represented on the council. That helped with some of the grassroots fundraising. And then my campaign manager helped me get to some of the more sophisticated groups that could also donate.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur or a stay-at-home mom or you have a 9-to-5 job, you have to have someone else who’s worrying about the campaign all the time. Because you will have to pull yourself away and have time with your family, have time with your job. When people don’t, they consume themselves in the campaign and that’s more exhausting than anything. It’s already very taxing mentally and physically. You’re just totally dead and exhausted by the end of the campaign. And most of the time you do wind up making mistakes. Having a consultant allowed me to know that things were still moving even when I had to take time away to spend with my kids.