It happened again just last week. I was talking with a marketing rep, an obviously intelligent, informed guy, and in the middle of our conversation I suggested he might want to talk to one of our city councillors about a question he had. Whoa - did that push a button. He squared his shoulders, pulled himself erect and, face flushed red, fairly shouted at me that he would never talk to a politician. I hate politicians, he blurted, they're all crooks!
But you're talking to one, I thought, or at least a wannabe. And I'm not a crook.
How is it that people draw a line in the sand, with politicians suspected of all things nefarious, hypocritical and sociopathic on one side and all decent, ordinary, honest, folks on the other? How did we move from regarding politics as the art and science of government (Oxford University Press, 1970) to politics as activities aimed at improving status or position that are devious or divisive (Oxford American, 2006)?
I wouldn't even pretend to answer those questions, but I want to put them out there as a backdrop for what follows: a glimpse behind the political curtains from someone who's been there - one ordinary person with no big money or political machine, just some ideas and determination behind her.
I've run for city council twice; the first time, an unknown long-shot who came up along the rails and, with a couple of thousand votes in my pocket, just missed a seat by 40-some votes. The second go I was supposed to be a shoo-in, ran a more considered campaign, but finished way back in the middle of the pack. It's all in the hands of the voters, as one veteran candidate pointed out.
I've also been courted twice, in two different elections by two different political parties, to be a provincial candidate. Both requests were surprising - and flattering - and straightforward. No backroom deals at midnight, no men in dark suits in limos. The ask was in the form of pedestrian emails, followed by phone calls and brief courtships with me declining for various reasons, primarily timing and money.
This isn't meant to be a true confession or some typical, iconic story. But with our provincial election at hand with one of the most important referendum questions on the ballot that we British Columbians will see in our lifetimes - the option for BC-STV that is meant to increase everyone's political engagement - I want to deconstruct some of the mysticism (or is it alienation?) about politics, and put you not necessarily in the driver's seat unless, of course, you want to be, but at least in the mindset that you or your sister or your best friend could be or should be a politician. The opportunity is yours for the taking.
At the very least, I hope this reawakens your political awareness and helps you become more politically engaged and active. For the only real crime I see as far as politics is concerned is that most people aren't taking part in our democracy.
Crossing the line in the sand
So how do you cross over into the "shadowy" world and become a political candidate?
It's pretty basic. If you're a Canadian citizen, over 18 on election day, lived in B.C. more than six months and have not been disqualified from voting you get yourself down to your city hall, at least in the case of civic elections, some two to four weeks before the 10-day nomination period begins and get your nomination package.
Your package contains all the practical information you need to know about being nominated and running as a candidate. But the critical bit is the nomination papers. All you need are people who are qualified to vote in the jurisdiction you're going to run in to nominate you. The number can vary from two to 25; in my case it was two.
Their statement of nomination simply declares that to the best of their knowledge you are qualified to hold local government office in B.C.
How simple is that? Still, I was amazed how much weight people placed on who signed their papers. That's politics for you. Some candidates just went for their parents or friends, which was sweet, but others went for people with clout, the local legends, the bastions of the community, like they were branding themselves by association
One person wouldn't sign my papers because he'd already signed someone else's - not that it mattered legally or to me, but it mattered in his mind. Another wouldn't sign mine for fear she would politicize herself. In the end, I got caught up in the symbolism, too, for I went for two women, one a well-respected businesswoman and the other one of my oldest friends. I'm not sure it meant anything to anyone other than myself, though.
For the provincial election, the nominating process is almost as simple - you can download your nomination package at www.elections.bc.ca. More permutations arise at the provincial level. For instance, you have to include a $250 deposit and, unless we get in BC-STV which will de-emphasize partisan politics, you'll likely want to be a party candidate.
Of course, there are other requirements your chief election officer at city hall will explain, like naming an agent and financial disclosure statements you have to turn in after the election (more on that later) and deadlines you have to meet, but in a nutshell, that's how simple it is to become a candidate in a civic election - a good place to start your life in politics.
Not that I'm suggesting people run as a lark, which they shouldn't. I just want you to see how open the possibilities are, or could be if people would only engage in them. As for the fakers and charlatans, there will always be a few, but they're held in check by the culture of the campaign (more on that later, too) and those aforementioned voters who hold it all in their hands.
On the other hand, the freedom of being able to run a Work Less Party or Mr. Peanut as a candidate says a lot for our democracy and the satirical ways we can protest the system - something activists in the '70s were good at, but we've seemingly forgotten.
My point is you don't need a party or a slate or some secret organization whose members wear purple robes and fake moose horns to put your name forward as a candidate. Some people are surprised to learn that you don't even need to live in your riding to run, which can unleash some interesting permutations, as was the case in Whistler's last civic election when a candidate from Surrey, who really liked signs, ran as mayor. Again, voters will weed out if residency is important or not.
If you want advice on running, call politicians or politicos you like and respect. Most are happy to share stories, like the 16-year Vancouver council veteran who told me the best advice ever for campaigning: have fun!
So why are you running?
'Tis serious business running for office, but if you don't maintain some level of enjoyment you're pretty much doomed. That doesn't mean you have to bounce off the walls with fake enthusiasm, but voters can smell desperation miles away if you want it too badly.
I also learned pretty quickly to stay positive - and patient - and keep reminding myself of why I ran. My attitude for the most part - and it wavers at times, especially when fatigue creeps in - was, Glenda, you'll do fine. Even if you lose you'll do fine, because you're getting your ideas out there.
To me, that was the biggest payback. At every all candidates meeting you speak at, every street corner you stump, you get to explain, argue for, and try and convince people of the values you believe in. The sweetest moment for me last campaign was convincing a woman that no town is an island and we need more density in developed areas to save our good agricultural land for agriculture. I literally saw the light go on in her eyes.
As you campaign, the process makes you practical. You don't have access to all the information sitting politicians do, but I think you're obliged to figure out how you might actually achieve your goals. Voters ask some pretty good questions; you'd better be ready.
The last thing you want to do, especially in a small town, is flip-flop and tell people what you think they want to hear. One of my fellow candidates, who is a smart, likable fellow, fell into that. People picked up on it. He finished somewhere down the line.
My mission was sustainability. Big topic but one you can tackle at the local level through strategies like smart growth, good public transit, how you handle your waste and pushing for sustainable, green economic strategies like developing the arts.
If you stay true to why you are running it will sustain you through all kinds of moments: the nerve-wracking seconds before you get up to the podium to speak for the first time or your annoyance when someone gets in your face, or spits at your feet, as one lady did when I was main-streeting (politico-speak for handing out brochures to passersby on main street). I wonder what she really thought about my position on the new uptown development.
The gong show
The campaign trail - and I can only speak to the local trail here - is nothing if not entertaining. It starts with the run-up to nomination closing, when the rumours run rife. So-and-so is running. Oh no-o-o! Or, great! the various cries ring out. The only time some air hissed out of my balloon was the first go-round when I heard a former incumbent was running. He'll get my seat, I told my husband. And he did.
Of the 40-some people running over the two elections I was part of, only a couple were cagey strategists, putting their hats in the ring after they'd checked out who the competition was and decided that they had a shot at winning. The vast majority of us were pretty straightforward about just declaring ourselves and going for it.
It might surprise you to know that I was glad to hear of good candidates running. The idea that we only see one another as the evil competition to fight against tooth and nail is an ignorant cliché - almost as ignorant as the one that we're all crooks.
I can think of oodles of examples of goodwill amongst us: we'd put up each other's signs that blew down, cry on each other's shoulders and donate to each other's campaigns - and we weren't even part of a slate. I, for one, suffered camaraderie withdrawal when it was over.
One of my "competitors" welcomed my fundraiser in his pub, no charge. When one of my fellow candidates blasted me in a group email for suggesting we all agree to go sign-free in the name of sustainability, two others jumped to my defense before I could reply. (To his credit, the fellow later apologized.)
Only one candidate was baiting and hostile, one never appeared in public, and one was pegged by many of us as a ne'er-do-well. It seemed when his signs appeared on roadsides, others would disappear. He'd tell you one thing to your face, and cook up another story behind your back. We kept a collective eye on him.
The bottom line is you know you're just one of six on a team and common sense dictates that you want to be there with people you trust and respect. Who wants to agree on everything? It's healthier if you don't. But you have to be able to work together in a professional sense. A good sense of humour is a plus.
Far and away, my fellow candidates were sincere, credible people. I find this a most encouraging realization for anyone marking a ballot in any election anywhere. It doesn't matter whether I agreed with them, they worked hard for what they believed in, like the typical, well-intended Canadians they are. Out of 23 candidates last election, there were only two that I can't say I trusted or respected. Half of them I would hire in a minute if I had my own business, and several I now call friends.
Out of time...
Serve the public for pay or for free? People are sharply divided on this. One night over libations, some of us candidates argued the two sides. Our city pays councillors about $28,000 a year, plus about $5,000 for expenses such as trips to conventions for civic politicians. The mayor gets about double that. In smaller municipalities in Metro Vancouver that's pretty average. You also get the use of a laptop and a Blackberry.
I think that being elected to serve the public is reward in itself. Nobody else agreed.
As for the time involved in service, it can be phenomenal. Experienced councillors, some of them from serving at Whistler going back 20 or 30 years, told me that the amount of time they averaged per week on council business ranged from a low of 10 hours (only one person said that) to more than 40 hours (three people said that). Most said it took them 20 to 30 hours per week, much of it spent in tedious committee meetings and answering countless emails and phone calls.
One cold, rainy night door-knocking - my community recommends hitting 1,000 homes if you are serious about your candidacy; I did 800 - I was fed up after trying to deal politely with someone who ranted about nothing to do with me or what I was campaigning on. I thought about those long hours you'd spend week after week, for three years. I also remembered one ex-councillor's caution about how long it takes to move ideas forward if you get in - idealists beware. In such moments, you couldn't blame me for wondering if I still wanted the job.
In retrospect, thinking about standing on that porch, I also wonder why people get so cynical about those who are willing to spend tons of time and energy trying to get hired by the public to work for 12 bucks an hour. Maybe that's why people think politicians are crooks - the straight pay stinks so they must be after the pay-off.
... And out of money
If you have some extra time you can quickly mollify your suspicions about where the election buck stops. Just scan the financial disclosure statements each candidate has to make and every jurisdiction has to post publicly by a set deadline after each election. If they aren't available on-line, you can ask to see them at your city hall.
Financial disclosure statements are pretty revealing, especially if you're considering running yourself. You can see who to ask for money; you can see who supports whom; you can decide if it's worth running.
Last civic election we 23 candidates pumped nearly $118,000 into our local economy in four short weeks. Besides Canada Post, our local newspaper and local sign-maker/printer got most of it.
That meant an average spending of $5,128 per candidate. The biggest spender dropped $13,400; two candidates didn't spend a thing, so you can see you can go for whatever level of financial engagement you're comfortable with.
I spent just over $8,700 on my campaign, most of it on newspaper ads, followed by brochures and $1,100 postage to mail them to every door in town. I also distributed about 1,000 brochures by hand and at all candidates meetings.
The other part of the financial equation is how much you raise in contributions. It was interesting that this go-round I raised half of what I did last time. Were people "electioned out" after the federal and U.S. elections, already hunkering down for the recession, or figuring I wasn't worth betting on?
Campaign contributions seem to raise eyebrows. Now that I've been there, done that, I don't understand why. The rules are getting increasingly stringent. This time, for instance, you couldn't even hold a 50/50 draw for a buck a ticket unless you recorded the name and address of every person who bought one.
I must say I get a warm fuzzy feeling looking at my list of contributions - a professional campaign manager would laugh at my grassroots support: 29 friends, relatives and neighbours contributing a total of $1,045, most of it in $25 increments for fundraiser tickets.
Foolishly, I say as I dig myself out of debt from my campaign spending, I laughed at the only contribution offered to me by a developer. I don't even know how much it would have been, but I was proud of myself for my answer. I just wouldn't have felt right about that.
But about a quarter of my fellow candidates took contributions from developers and, horror of horrors, numbered companies. I know this holds sway for some voters - especially the latter, which seems to carry the whiff of something illicit even though a numbered company can be a ma n' pa operation cutting firewood. One candidate tried to make a big deal out of same last election, and is facing a court case in part because of same, but I think the issue is more perception than any real influence-peddling.
Organizations such as the Canadian Labour Congress or the Firefighters Union also must make financial disclosures for any candidates they back in your riding. For instance, this last civic election the CLC contributed nearly $154,000 to dozens of candidates for council, mayoral seats, school boards and parks boards across the province, including one successful council candidate in my riding and the new mayor of Vancouver.
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So how does all this shake out for you as you go about your business, keeping life and dreams on track? For one, it might make you reconsider how you think about politics and politicians. I especially hope it makes you realize there is no line in the sand - we are you and your are us - and that it truly is a privilege, one also entailing work and responsibility, to be part of a democracy.
In the time of the 13 colonies, the average person spent 16 hours a week on civic affairs - going to meetings, deciding where to build the schoolhouse, who would run the town. If you lived in America in the 1850s, every level of government was of consuming interest. Voter turnout was 75 percent.
How and why we've run so far off the rails of political engagement, I'm not sure, but if change is going to come, it's up to you and me.