For a long time I have said that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender candidates tend to be better than their straight counterparts at running for office, and that’s because they have to be. When breaking a barrier, it is those with stellar qualifications and incredible drive who get through the tough election fights and win.
For the last 15 years as the lead trainer for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund’s Victory Institute, and a political consultant who specializes in direct mail and online advertising, I have worked with LGBT candidates running for office at all levels. Many of them are model candidates, plain and simple. In my experience, they understand that campaigning isn’t easy and are willing to put in the time necessary.
It’s really a pretty simple formula: work hard, be incredibly qualified, have long standing ties to the community, be open and honest, raise a lot of money and you too could be on your way to winning elected office. LGBT candidates may understand this formula best, but it’s the same one any would be candidate should be following. So here are some things to take to heart before you decide to launch your own campaign:
Be over-qualified. The average LGBT candidate I have worked with is on their second or third career. They have served on boards and commissions throughout their community, raised money for different causes, devoted lots of time and developed lasting relationships. They have much to offer their community and have already served their community in multiple ways prior to getting elected. One result is that by developing lasting relationships outside of a campaign, you will have a larger and more powerful Rolodex when you start to run for office and rev up fundraising.
Be open. If you can’t connect with people in a real, tangible way, you should not be running for office. Successful LGBT candidates are willing to talk to people and be open about who they love. You forge a more meaningful connection with supporters and potential supporters as a result. When you let people into your life like this, you develop a level of connection that all candidates should envy. So whatever you are talking about—your personal life, a failed business—be open. It will make you a better candidate.
Be honest. The honest politician might be an oxymoron in some places, but if you are willing to share with people and bring them into your life, you are also more likely to be honest about what is going on at city hall or in the state house. That includes honesty about things like taxes, budgets and the core economic issues that voters care about most, and it tends to make you a better all-around candidate. It’s the sort of honesty that we need more of from elected officials, and voters are likely to reward it.
Break barriers. We all have barriers in our community. However, people today want to see a diverse population—something that is reflective of the world and their communities. By definition LGBT candidates are often breaking barriers and they need to be comfortable with that in order to succeed. That mentality can be just as much of an asset for the average candidate, too. Don’t let what you see as a barrier dissuade you from running; it might end up being your greatest asset.
Have a broad circle of friends and professional relationships. Don’t self-select your friends by political party or through a narrow viewpoint. Being able to call on a broad, diverse coalition of supporters will give you a greater understanding of your community and help you to connect with voters in unexpected places.
Be Proactive. If you run hard, and avoid looking over your shoulder all the time, you will find yourself setting the tone and the agenda for the campaign. True leaders understand that they need to set the message for the campaign instead of running a reactive one.
Don’t waste resources. Campaigns will complain about spending too much time on the phone raising money, yet those same campaigns are the ones with 2,000 signs sitting in their headquarters and canvassers going door to door without lists. The better you use your resources, the more likely you are to win.
Have a plan. Would you launch a business without a business plan? A campaign is a business, and you need to run it like one. If you have been around budgets and run businesses or organizations, you know the difference between a good business and a bad one. The same goes for the difference between a good and bad campaign.
Don’t be afraid to ask for money. Asking people for money can be scary, but it is absolutely necessary to be successful. People won’t just give you money when you get on the ballot, but know that the number one reason people don’t give is because they were never asked. Think of it as giving them the opportunity to change the world they live in. You need established relationships with friends and family to generate the financial support for your campaign.
Have an established support network. An established support network is the cornerstone of a good campaign. Whether it is fundraising, door knocking or someone to hang out with while you do the laundry that’s been sitting in the trunk of your car the past two weeks, politics is a team sport and you will need help.
The bottom line: running for office is not nearly as easy as some potential candidates think. Too many candidates have the impression that they can put their name on the ballot and everything will just come. So if you’re considering a run, spend the time on the front end. The best candidates know that it takes years to build community support before you run and your actions outside of office and overall approach to life will make the difference between winning and losing.
Joe Fuld is president of The Campaign Workshop, a full service political consulting firm specializing in direct mail, online advertising and general strategy. Joe is also the lead trainer for The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund’s Victory Institute.