Seeing the Elephant

My Foray into Local Politics

By Michael Kleen

March 12, 2012

Four months ago, I decided to do something I had not thought of doing before, with little money and little experience, and with a lot of personal reservations: I decided to run for public office. It was a decision that I made reluctantly, but one that I do not regret. As of this moment, I have no idea whether or not I will win. All I know is that I did the best I could, and if you have any interest in running for office (do it), I hope this column about my experiences will be helpful.

It began with a general suggestion: We need people like you to run for office. Then, a thought: Why not? It turned out that in Winnebago County, Illinois, one only needs 25 signatures for his or her name to appear on the Primary ballot for the position of County Board Member (other elected positions require hundreds or thousands of signatures, and it is always a good idea to get twice as many as you need). After introducing myself and announcing my intentions at a Northern Illinois Tea Party meeting, and being greeted by rowdy applause, I decided to commit myself to the race.

The first thing I did was read all the rules and requirements about gathering signatures, creating a campaign committee, and raising money. The Illinois Board of Elections website has a lot of downloadable guides and information for prospective candidates. I marched down to the Winnebago County Clerk’s office and said I wanted to run for County Board in my County Board district (your CB dist. is listed on your voter registration card). The clerk handed me a packet of forms, including signature sheets, and told me that the top of every sheet had to be filled out exactly the same.

Not listening to directions cost one of my opponents his place on the ballot. You see, there are public hearings in which the candidates or their associates have the opportunity to scrutinize and challenge their opponent’s petition sheets and signatures. It turned out that one of my opponents failed to disclose a previous name, he was called on it, and he was disqualified by the Electoral Board. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief when my name was not among the candidates who faced challenges.

But before petition sheets can be challenged, they have to be filed. There is a short window of time during which your petitions and statement of candidacy have to be filed at the County Clerk’s office. In Winnebago County, ballot positions are awarded based on filing order, and everyone who showed up at the Clerk’s office at 8am on November 28th were considered to have gotten there first. It is generally considered an advantage to be listed first on the ballot. Two of my opponents were there that morning, so a lottery was held and we pulled numbers out of a hat to determine ballot position. My stomach was in knots when I pulled the number three.

Little by little, however, fate turned things around. First, one of my opponents was removed from the ballot for failing to disclose a previous name. Then, a second (who was a political veteran and would have been tough to defeat) was offered a job and dropped out of the race. That left just a local realtor and I, and now I had the coveted top ballot position. The race to the primary was on!

Let’s talk money. It costs a lot to run a political campaign, and Illinois campaign finance law requires you to file paperwork creating a campaign committee if you plan to raise or spend more than $3,000. All told, I have spent just shy of that amount, but I have heard of other candidates raising $8-10,000 for their County Board campaigns. It is possible to win by simply walking door to door in the district, but that takes a lot of determination, time, and charisma. After sorting through a voter list provided by the local elections office, I determined there were about 1,600 households populated by primary-voting Republicans in my district. If I knocked on 100 doors a day, it would take me over two weeks to visit every house, and there is no guarantee all of those people would be home. If you want to run for office, getting your name and message out to voters is essential.

As a newcomer to local politics and our local Republican Party (and perhaps because of my populist dislike of incumbents and other politicians) I met some resistance when I first started my campaign. There was a lot of suspicion about my motivations, and even my parent’s voting record has been called out on occasion (they are Democrats). Still, aside from a few insulting comments on my website, I have not encountered nearly as much negative campaigning as I thought. I have “kept it Kleen” throughout—I have witnessed one candidate verbally attack his opponent in public and it was ugly and in all likelihood backfired by costing him some support.

The best advice I can give is to not be intimidated by the electoral process. If this country is going to survive, we need citizens to get involved. If you are jaded and you think the process is fundamentally corrupt, then I challenge you to do something about it. It really is as simple as putting your name on the ballot and running a positive campaign. You might be surprised at what you could accomplish.


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