Campaign tips for would-be candidates

Because we are in the midst of campaign season (the filing period opened for City Council elections Dec. 19 and closes Jan. 17), it’s appropriate to have discussion on what it takes to run for elected office in Culver City.

While being a candidate may look glamorous, it’s actually a very arduous and painstaking undertaking. Many an optimistic candidate has filed papers to run for city council or school board, thinking of how much fun it will be only find themselves physically exhausted, financially drained and somewhat beaten by a system that is only for the well-prepared, well-known, well-financed and well-liked.

Even some incumbents have taken a beating because they underestimated the difficulty of running a reelection campaign.

Some have overestimated their popularity among the voting public. Such was the case with former school board member Stewart Bubar, who in November 2002, ran the worst campaign I’ve ever seen run by an incumbent. He eventually won by the luck of the draw when he selected the “winning” black marble after he and candidate Roger Maxwell finished in a dead heat with 1141 votes apiece for the final seat on the Culver City Unified School District Board of Education.

And there are times when an incumbent runs a good campaign and still loses. Such was the case this year when former CCUSD School Board President Scott Zeidman lost his bid for reelection and in 2002, when David Hauptman lost his city council reelection race.

Zeidman’s race demonstrated the natural bias of the electorate. Women make up the majority of voters and voters tend to elect candidates with strong educational credentials to school boards. Even though Zeidman was an incumbent with a ton of endorsements and was a member of a school board with little acrimony and a school district with very minimal negatives, he was not supported by the teachers union (the majority of which are women) and lost to two women with very strong educational credentials and experience.

So this is a primer for new and not-so-new candidates who aspire to represent the citizens of Culver City. Below are some helpful hints meant to guide the contenders as they embark on the campaign trail.

Helpful Hint #1: Have some body of work to show before you decide to run.

Too many candidates run for office with plenty of ambition and drive, but no level of demonstrated commitment to the city. They’ve never served on a commission (Civil Service, Planning, Cultural Affairs, etc.), a neighborhood group (Blair Hills, Sunkist Park, Carlson Park), a homeowners group (Downtown Neighborhood Association, Fox Hills, Gateway, etc.,) or a public interest group (Culver City Dog Park or Fiesta La Ballona).

A candidate must be able to show a smaller group of residents that they have leadership abilities before he/she can bypass this process and run citywide. One shouldn’t just be a member; but should be an officer of the group and preferably president or chairman. A real sign of trouble is when the neighborhood association endorses one’s opponent.

Don’t be an embarrassment by not serving in some leadership role in Culver City before filing to run for office.

Helpful Hint #2: If you cannot afford a ballot statement, don’t run.

Campaigns are not for poor people. Black-and-white campaign material is a turnoff, no ballot statement is a turnoff and homemade cheap campaign signs are a turnoff.

The grassroots candidate loses in Culver City because fully one-third of voters live in closed or gated communities and cannot be reached by going door to door. Candidates must use direct mail advertising and it must be of high quality, full color with excellent photos and compelling copy.

Be able to articulate a vision for the city and be able to tell people succinct reasons for running for office. If you can’t afford a ballot statement, you have missed your chance to tell 23,000 people who you are and why they should vote for you.

Helpful Hint #3: Look, act and talk like a candidate.

Candidates must be able to have a look and a message that resonates with the voter. Culver City is a very casual community, but that doesn’t mean one should look casual. In fact, a candidate should be slightly better dressed than the voter and the other candidates.

Be able to project an image of confidence and authority. I believe that in a crowd a candidate needs to look like he/she is in charge even when that’s not the case. For men, that means jackets with or without a tie. For ladies, it means slacks, dresses or skirts, but no jeans. I know women don’t wear hosiery anymore, but I insist that female candidates I work with wear them.

Don’t go to a candidates forum without being in business attire, but it’s OK to walk precincts with slacks and tennis shoes. Be succinct and concise in your message and delivery. Have three main points and continue to hit them. Don’t just flail away at the problems of the city or schools; have some solutions and recognize successes. Carry yourself with dignity. Don’t shout, don’t argue and don’t be negative or condescending. Stay positive, smile and never get visibly angry, which shows a lack of self-control.

Helpful Hint #4: Don’t run by yourself.

Without a strong group of supporters (a base), it’s not worth running. Volunteers are necessary to help walk precincts, make phone calls and raise money. Without a base of support, one can’t gain the traction needed to garner citywide acceptance.

Even if a candidate has deep pockets, that alone won’t help in Culver City. One has to touch a voter seven times to gain any recognition from them. That means: 1) Mail them (three times minimum), 2) call them, 3) knock on their doors, 4) talk to their neighbors, who repeat your message, 5) have signage in their neighborhood and 6) place an ad in the local newspaper (I strongly recommend the Culver City News).

You’ll notice that even the poorest candidate manages to scrape up enough money for a newspaper ad the last week of the campaign, but it has to be one of the seven touches and not the only touch. Culver City voters talk among themselves and they know the real deal from the fake. Without a base, a candidate may be viewed as a fake.

Helpful Hint #5: All endorsements aren’t good endorsements.

Endorsements are very tricky in Culver City. There are various camps throughout the city and being liked in one camp may cause doubt and mistrust in another. Some names are lightening rods and can doom a campaign (I can think of several people who fall into this category, but I will resist the temptation to name them here.)

Former elected officials are normally good sources of endorsements. Once they are out of office, they become well-liked even though some may not have been when they were in office. Organizations are the best endorsements to have (Democratic Club, police, fire and teachers unions, and the Culver City Chamber of Commerce are a few that come to mind).

A candidate can win without them, but it takes more money, more manpower and a high likeability factor. Normally, the candidate with the most endorsements wins, so get as many neutral people as possible to publicly endorse you and fight very hard for organizational endorsements like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters.

Next week: Additional campaign tips.

Jewett Walker, Jr. is a political consultant who has represented candidates for local and state government and is a 14-year resident of Culver City.