Dare to Win

Submitted by George Friday on Tue, 02/12/2008 - 20:59.

by Phil Tajitsu Nash
I have served as an internet consultant to a variety of progressive causes and candidates over the years, and the first thing I do is make sure the candidate or group wants to win. While that seems like a self-evident question, it is not. Too many progressives are stuck in reaction mode, reacting against the many injustices in society and not preparing themselves and their groups to be winners.

Many of us have quite rightly sided with the "losers" in the societal battle between the haves and have-nots (not to mention Bush's base, the "have-mores"). We have spent our lives pushing for equity and justice, so holding ourselves up as better-than-thou "winners" somehow seems unnatural.

Preparing to be "Insiders"

To get beyond this mental blockage requires a mental reconfiguring. We must remind ourselves that building a better world requires both outsider and insider strategies. We can expose injustice AND we can support candidates who will pass laws to stop it. We can rally against budget cuts AND we can run for office to stop those budget cuts ourselves.

Worrying about the inherent taint of electoral politics is a cop out. Politics involves compromises, sure, but without progressives in the game the line where compromises are drawn is pretty far to the right.

Each of us must chart a life course and decide when we will work outside the system and when we will work inside the system. The progressive movement needs outsiders such as researchers, academics, lawyers, strategists, union leaders, rank-and-file workers, journalists, and community organizers, as well as insiders such as elected officials and government workers. Many of us will work in a variety of these jobs in the course of a lifetime.

Both Form and Content Are Important

Creating websites for progressive candidates has allowed me to get an insight into how many of these candidates see themselves and how we in the progressive community see them. It is very hard to get a progressive candidate to spend the time, money and effort to get good pictures of themselves for their website, even though many more people will see them online than in person. "I don't want to participate in a beauty contest," said one male candidate, but he did not realize that every campaign is, in part, a contest that is won in the realm of non-verbal communication.

Go online and look at a few campaign websites. How do the candidates present themselves? Without reading a word on the Home page, ask yourself what message that candidate is sending to you, the anonymous visitor.

Unfortunately, by not taking more time to "mainstream" themselves as candidates, many progressives sabotage their chance to be winners. They look like people who are uncomfortable pushing themselves forward. They look like people who are ambivalent about holding power. And they look like people who don't care what other people think of their appearance. As a result, it's no wonder that the people, causes and ideals they care about continue to get marginalized.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that applying makeup and blow-drying your hair should be your top priorities as a candidate. By not taking the time to mainstream yourself, however, you are just wasting your time.

Ten Tips For Progressive Candidates

Once you have decided that you want to win, here are ten quick tips for anyone considering a run for office as a progressive candidate:

Start with a strategic plan. Research the issues, strategies, and tactics used in previous elections in your area, and see what was most effective. What can you incorporate into your own campaign?

Do an inventory of yourself as a candidate. What credentials or life experiences have prepared you for the office you are seeking? It helps to understand real estate or law if you are running for a Planning Board seat, but you would be surprised if you knew the credentials and life experiences of many current office holders. Do not underestimate yourself!

Write a campaign bio for yourself and have someone review it who can be brutally honest with you. Too many women, minorities and political progressives I have worked with undervalue their strengths and overemphasize their own shortcomings.

Make sure you have a strong resume when it comes to community service in your local area. Sure, you have been active in national progressive organizations or causes, but local voters want to see what you have done for them lately.

Make yourself look like someone who is already holding the office to which you aspire. Yes, Jon Corzine kept his beard against the advice of his political consultants when he ran for New Jersey senator and governor, but he had a few million bucks to put on the table. I'm not saying to throw away your sandals, but make sure that you present yourselves like the other candidates in your area when you go out to greet the voters (whether with business attire, overalls, or shirt sleeves). If you can be marginalized by your appearance, no one will take the time to listen to your ideas.

Act like you belong in office. Act like a statesman or stateswoman, not a candidate who is uncomfortable with even trying to run for office. Rise above attacks and keep the focus on issues. Keep pushing the center to the left. When the mainstream candidates draw a line to keep you out, draw a circle to bring everyone in.

Learn how to ask for money. This is one of the hardest lessons for progressives. The unfortunate fact is that money is needed to run successfully. We cannot wish that all states had a clean election law like Maine's and then not raise money. You should never enter a battle without a sword. The flip side of this is that each of us must start allocating part of our income to give to progressive candidates. It is not tax-deductible, but it is necessary.

Learn how to ask for votes. The trick when asking for money and votes is to keep the people you plan to help in your mind's eye when you are making the ask. The money and votes are for you, but you are the conduit to a better world for those people. Many center and right-wing candidates are good at doing this trick, when they really are beholden to the PACs and large corporate givers. Keep your eyes on the goal, and get out there and make your requests convincing.

Organize your thoughts. Start from a clear overview such as the Ten Key Values that have been written by the Green Party (http://www.gp.org/tenkey.shtml). Decide where you agree and where you differ. Then check yourself against the progressive parties and groups that are out there. Decide if you can work within one of these parties or groups, or set out on your own. Remember, however, that reinventing the wheel is a lot of work, especially when you have a limited amount of time during a campaign.

Dare to win. Stop making excuses. Your views are as credible as the right-wing candidate's, so present them as such. You may not have as much experience, but so what? Your opponent started out with no experience at one point. Voters can sense when you are the right person at the right time. If you can convince enough of them that you have the right combination of vision, background, and presentation, then you will win. Best of luck!