Ultimately, in the end, I was outspent.
Outspent from a monetary standpoint.
Outspent in political capitol.
Outspent in will to even win the damn thing.
That sounds like I gave up, but what really happened was that I realized I could effect much more change simply by speaking up, rather than by being elected. Too many people get elected and it changes them. The reality of their re-election hits them smack in the face at the moment they take their oath of office, and it fundamentally changes who they are. I didn’t want to be changed. I didn’t want to be politicized as an individual in my principles and beliefs – and I saw it becoming more clear that I would have to do that, to compromise my standards in order to win. I chose not to, and suffered the consequence.
That consequence? I got outspent.
Of course I pushed on and campaigned to the bitter end. On the weekend before the election, as voting began all over the district, I did another email campaign, text, and phone bank push to every home in the district. With over 70% of ballots that would ultimately be cast already in at that point, this seems like it was all for naught, but – again – in doing this, I was able to still get my message across. While I had the opportunity to lift people’s ear, I did.
That message? To be safe. To wear a mask. Vaccines were coming, when they did arrive, get one as soon as they became eligible. Call me if they needed resources. Call me if they needed an advocate. The election was just weeks before the pandemic was about to get significantly worse, and with clear indication that I was not going to win, I felt an obligation to reach as many people as I could. My opponent, and the entire city and city council for that matter, could not care less if people got sick and died, if the hospitals were overrun, if people lost their homes and starved. Even the nurse. Running for city council, if anything, reminded me that I did not need to be elected to work, organize, and have an impact on my community.
In the end, though, the will, the way, and the money made sure that do it as a private citizen was the only way I would.
My will to win faded towards the end of the campaign. Even though, as I said, I fought until the polls closed, I increasingly became concerned about what would happen if I actually did win.
For months, my family endured the type of harassment that I had never witnessed in all of the elections I had worked on before. After college, I worked on a lot of campaigns. Big campaigns, small campaigns; campaigns as a volunteer, as an intern. I worked on campaigns as a full time employee with a big title. Never did I see the type of vitriol and hatred spewed at the direction of a candidate as was spewed in mine. Over a city council seat in a small, suburban community of around 70,000 people. But then social media was not as pervasive to daily life back then.
The type of comments that were made to me on social media were the stuff of nightmares. People called me innocent things that were easy to ignore, like “Democratic Socialist,” and at the same time things so horrific and personal, it made my skin crawl.
But the name calling wasn’t the extent of it. I got text messages on my campaign phone telling me I was a “dirty whore,” and that people were coming to get me; my entire family was doxed online in the comments sections of our local newspapers. Strangers knew oddly specific details about our daily lives. On an average day, my kids and I would be heading out the front door in the morning to get to whatever we had going on for the day, to find trash had been thrown at our house. On more than one occasion, we had to call the police because my kids were being followed.
Of course after the election, I thought all this would abate. It did not. My kids being followed only intensified; trash thrown at my front door became a nightly thing for a while. People texted my old campaign line telling me to “kill” myself. Supporters of my opponent hacked my business social media pages, stole my credit card numbers – you name it, they got ahold of it.
A few months after the election, I got a text from the organizer of the Democratic mom’s group, calling me a racist because I didn’t support one of the city council members taking a turn as mayor. That council member was white (all of them are); nevertheless, I apologized for any misunderstanding. I was still removed unilaterally by this woman from the group, and she and a couple other Democratic moms began smearing my name in every organization I had been a part of. Even sports groups my kids were in that had nothing to do with politics. Later, I found out that this woman was good friends with my opponent; so much so that they had dinner together on Sundays. Her insistence on not being able to display one of my campaign signs on her lawn – which had no less than ten others on it – suddenly made sense.
Campaign signs, or rather the replacement of them, ended up being my biggest expense. This was because they were regularly destroyed. Ripped out of the ground, vandalized, and disappearing in the night, this ended up becoming a full time endeavor: replacing the signs, repeatedly. Closer to the election, I just gave up replacing them – having run out of money and the will to keep returning to the same spots day after day to find mine, the only one in the group of all the candidate’s signs, gone.
When I started out, I had 256 signs around town (on top of the yard sings people had on their own private property) that I had gotten permission to display, along with all the other candidate signs out on these corners. The night of the election, when I went to collect what remained, there were only 12 left.
In my opponent’s first election to the city council, he spent somewhere in the ballpark of $40,000 – most of his own money – to be elected. This was an unfeasible sum to me for a city council district seat that pays around $1500 a month. I could understand wanting to do it for your community, but that sum of money seemed not just ridiculous, but wasteful and suspect.
Nevertheless, I figured this was what I was going to be up against: somewhere around $40,000, which all of my advisors and campaign volunteers agreed would probably be the sum to beat.
I didn’t have any intention of fundraising to such a degree, nor did I plan to spend that much of my own money in such large sum. But I knew I could get close to 25% of that in contribution and in my own donations, and make a considerable showing in the race.
What I didn’t anticipate was that my opponent would go above and beyond to the tune of $75,000. Between his own personal loan to his campaign of $15,000, contributions from local business owners, law firms, and land developers, and tens of thousands of dollars from the police (who never even returned my call) and fire fighter’s unions, my opponent simply raised, and subsequently spent, well more than I could have even anticipated someone would spend for a city council seat.
But it was more complicated than simply dollar-by-dollar campaign spending. At least in my view.
While my volunteers were largely staying home and keeping safe due to the pandemic, the bulk of his supporters didn’t even believe in COVID and were paid to go out and walk precincts.
While my fundraisers were held virtually and in an effort to social distance, his were in person, in people’s homes, which you knew had happened because the following day the entire street would be lined with his campaign signs.
And as it turned out, cronyism had truly taken hold of the community in insidious ways. What I left of politics over a decade prior to the campaign was gone, I returned to a wasteland of toxic identity politics and capitalistic city control. I knew that politics locally were something of a black hole before, but at least then I knew who stood by what principals. Quickly, what remained of my political capitol and these notions as to how things stood was clearly very little. People on all sides politically in our city, and in the county at large, were now on the same side: the financial and political exploitation side. Using power and public office or appointment as a position from which they could fund their own personal, financial endeavors, people had either lined up for their cut, or left politics behind.
Moreover, I was stunned to see how my own emergence in the political sphere clearly threatened so many people. To this day, I still don’t fully understand why. Fundamentally, I’m a nobody in the grand scheme of things. With a limited budget, and even less of a stakeholder position in the financial underpinnings of the community, I was no more a threat to many of these people than perhaps a gnat. And yet somehow, many people and groups made sure that I was outspent in every way I could be.
When it came time to seek endorsements, as I said, I made sure to align my goal to the organizations that were in line with my agenda. I didn’t want to waste time seeking the endorsement of any old group that came along. Endorsements take time, lobbying, and a lot of effort to secure. It’s paperwork, meetings, interviews – as a candidate, you have to devote some time to them, but you can’t devote all of your time to them.
The reason why you “have” to? Money. Endorsements traditionally come with a check, both from individuals and groups; more so with the groups. The local Planned Parenthood was quick to cut a check after their endorsement of my campaign, and it was equal to all of the other city council candidates that group endorsed. A few days before the election, the local carpenter’s union came through in the same way. However, every other group that I garnered an endorsement from fell short on the funding of my campaign as compared to other candidates. Maybe they didn’t think my district was winnable, and wanted to spare precious funds for future political activity. But if that were the case, why would my opponent not spare in the same way? Why would he and the police and fire fighters spend tens of thousands of dollars?
Stunning, as time went on, were the comparisons on campaign disclosure forms. The local Democrats would throw me a bone, while other candidates less qualified with less likelihood of winning were given maximum dollar amounts. The women’s group that endorsed my campaign, also funding me far less than other candidates, also forgot to mail my check for a whopping month and a half after it was written. It was almost as if these groups were setting me up to fail, and in such a way that seemed innocent or simply due to incompetence, but when it happened over and over again, the reality that it was probably for intentional reasons became clear.
There came a point that I simply gave up on personal endorsements, which concluded with my endorsement from our Congressional representative. While nice to know that my political capitol with her had not soured over the years, I knew that was about as good as it would get. A lot of others I had worked with, or done organizing in the community alongside over the years, ended up going silent when I asked for them to endorse my campaign.
Or some, like the fire fighters, simply smiled, said they supported me in idea, but wouldn’t give any official endorsements in any city council race; only to turn around the next day and endorse my opponent, along with writing a check to add to his $75,000 pot.
Still others were brutally honest and in my face about it. A former county supervisor I had encountered over the years I was working as a community organizer for the labor unions bluntly told me that she would not endorse me because my opponent was also a member of her rotary club. Another, a school board member, said she didn’t want to be embarrassed when she ran into my opponent’s wife at book club. Soon, these same types of excuses came in. “Oh our kids did boy scouts together,” or “you know we go to the same church.” The church was my real downfall, just up the hill from my own home and a centerpiece in our community, he was a staple figure from the years; and I was… well who was I? Not knowing me, many of them deferred to the familiar name, whose wife and adult children were always in tow, while my untraditional Catholic family could never seem to be found, all of them being at work, sports, or still staying home because of the pandemic.
This not knowing me seemed to do me in far more than I realized at the time. Often I would call a voter for them to say at the end of the thirty minute conversation “you know I wish I could vote for you now, but I already sent my ballot in.” Or, “oh well [opponent] was here last Saturday and he helped me fill out my ballot, sorry.”
In the retirement community that constituted roughly one-third of the district, I realized early on that if I could win them over, I could win the election. Keeping in mind turnout, presidential year, and what was needed to win, I could secure them plus a few hundred outside of their community, and my win would flow like gravy. Probably the most foolish thought of my entire campaign, I thus focused on that community more than any of the other neighborhoods in the area; hitting them with mail pieces, phone banking, and getting as many signs on lawns inside the gated community was my primary goal. I thought that, from a strategic standpoint, if I hammered on the pandemic and the danger to their aging population, I could secure their votes.
What I underestimated was the protection they already felt from behind the gates of their community; and the privilege with which they had already shrouded themselves in that made them largely untouched by the pandemic (at the time of the election). When the election took place, they had yet to see a single case of COVID 19 in their greater than 4,000 person community. They continued to enjoy golf, swimming – all of it; because, as we learned in the months that followed – the wealthiest people, in reality, were the ones that came off the easiest.
Interestingly, I did garner some support from inside the gilded gates of retirement living. Just not enough, and not the right support. And, I found out only too late, that my opponent, using his connections for having already been on the city council, had arranged to have a regular meet up with the community at large. During his time on the dais, he had advocated for them on some hemp smells that were coming from a neighboring farm. For this, many of these seniors, aging in their retirement village that largely stands apart from the rest of the community, felt indebted.
If we’re being honest, he also is, when you get down to it, an old man himself. In his 60s and covered in liver spots and aged lines, my toad man of an opponent fit in well with the senior crowd, whose regular complaints about aching joints and hemorrhoid problems were likely met with similar anecdotes on his part. He identified with this crowd much more than a young mom in her 30s ever could. For this reason, it was probably more than foolish to think I could win them over in more of a way than he could.
But still, I tried. When the organizer of their regular candidate’s night event contacted me, I was thrilled at the opportunity to address the otherwise-closed-off community. The event was simple: my opponent and I would come, they’d record and air it on their closed circuit channel, for all residents to watch on their televisions either live or on a replay, during the event we’d field questions from the community so they could make their choices based on our answers to the issues important to them.
A few things, now, stick out in my mind as suspicious about the entire event. For one, the organizer said to me repeatedly things like “I’m trying to be as fair as possible here.” Innocent enough. But then he would call me about some planning thing – offering a tour of the stage in advance, asking me to come have a photo taken, and so on – and he would always preface with “well [opponent] was just here and he and I thought…” The man and the other organizers were nice enough, but what I later found out has soured the entire thing in my mind: he and his wife contributed to my opponent’s campaign, months before the candidate’s event. Does he have a right to contribute to whatever campaign he wants? Of course. But perhaps have someone not clearly biased act as the moderator of the whole show.
This, sadly, was the way the entire campaign ended up going. I would come to find that family and friends of ours for years – decades – had donated and supported my opponent’s campaign. Some even participated in the destruction of my campaign signs. Democrats, Republicans, everyone. When imposter syndrome and self-confidence rear their ugly heads, I think to myself: maybe it was just me, my policies. But then how could I have earned the support from all of those that I actually did? Were we all just wrong?
The answer, simply put, was that my message and my motive, my agenda and my plans for our community, were spread through the community at around $3 per vote. My opponents? $12. I got outspent. If you run on a quarter of the campaign funds, you can expect about a quarter of the returns.
In the end, in support, in endorsements, and in final votes, that’s exactly what I got.