This past spring, I did something I’ve never done before: I ran for public office. Since moving to Lewisburg in 2014, I decided I wanted to do more to contribute to this remarkable community that’s given me so much. So, I ran for my first term on the Lewisburg City Council, and thanks to an outpouring of support, I was successfully elected.
I had many revelations along the campaign trail – some gentle reminders, some challenging curveballs. For anyone considering a run for public service (and you totally should, we need more young people making decisions in our communities), here are five things I wish I had known:
1. Campaigning is so much different than the actual job.
I’ve heard career politicians say that, but I didn’t realize how different the two things are until I tried it myself. Campaigning takes over your life – it is all-consuming. I found myself thinking about it when I woke up and late into the night. It seemed like that’s all I talked about for two months and it’s all anybody asked me about. It felt like suddenly I had two full-time jobs.
But now that I’m on City Council, it feels much more manageable. I attend meetings and do lots of reading and homework in between, but it’s nothing like campaign life. When you’re in the campaign, it’s easy to think, “Is this how my life is going to be over the next four years? What have I done?” But, thank heavens, that’s not the case at all.
2. Be prepared to be your most exposed and vulnerable to the public.
Even in a small town, where you think people already know everything about you, there will be a moment in the campaign when someone asks a very personal question or discusses aspects of your personal life on social media that will stop you in your tracks.
I’m a professional actress. I’ve made a career out of getting up on stage in front of an audience, but running for public office is another level of exposure, and I don’t think there was any way to really be prepared for it. I became hyper aware of how I looked when I walked my dog in the mornings and of my daily interactions with people around town, wondering if they would see me through a new lens as “the candidate.” It gave me a whole new appreciation for people who have made a career in public office.
3. Support will come from places you’d never expect.
I had Facebook friends, people I went to high school with that I hadn’t talked to in years, reach out to me and ask, “Where can I donate? It’s so awesome that you’re doing this.” And I had people that I’ve never met before stop me on the street to say “We’re rooting for you.”
Campaigning can bring out the best and worst in what you think about people. On one side it can feel like you’re being attacked, but on the other side there are all these people coming out of the woodwork to rally for you. It becomes a balancing act between not taking the bad stuff personally, and accepting the good stuff with humility and grace. Which brings me to…
4. Learn to accept and ask for help.
Typically, I’m the type of person who turns down help. “No, I can handle all of this.” But not during a campaign. I learned quickly when people volunteer to knock on doors for you, say “Yes.” When your friend offers to walk your dog because you’re going straight from work to a campaign event, let her. When people ask if they can donate, say “Absolutely!”
I’m a total control freak, so this was an extremely hard lesson for me to learn, but that’s one of the many beautiful things about campaigning – you get to know your strengths and your flaws very well.
5. It is okay not to know everything.
I hate not knowing. But I had to get over that really quickly. When I would go door to door talking with voters, I kept a notepad on hand. And if someone had a question that I didn’t know the answer to, I took down notes and their contact info. I looked into it and responded to their inquiry. I was exceptionally blessed with a slate of fellow candidates (all of whom were incumbents) who provided knowledge and support throughout the process. There is always some degree of “on the job” training and accepting that fact is very freeing. It allows you to be honest and recognize the amount of work ahead.
To put it in actor terms, running for your first term in office is like auditioning for a role you want, but a role you’ve never played before. You don’t actually know how it’s going to go, but you have to convince your casting director or voters that you’re capable of pulling it off. And if you’re lucky enough to book the gig, you have to put your heart and soul into proving that you can.
Kim Morgan Dean is the Associate Artistic Director of Greenbrier Valley Theatre, the state professional theatre of West Virginia. She grew up in south Florida and made her way to the Mountain State via Manhattan. She is an actress, singer, runner, dog-mom, and city councilperson.
Like party favors, but for your brain. Enjoy these weekly goodies including viral videos, interesting articles, curated playlists, and more!
- LISTEN: Kim did us the honors of designing this week’s playlist.
- TUNE IN: Pod Save America, one of Kim’s favorite podcasts.
- SHARPEN YOUR KNOWLEDGE: Civics 101, a podcast by NPR.