In 2015 I ran for the lower house of New Jersey’s legislature, the General Assembly, in Legislative District 31. It is a district of about 225,000 people. I had never run before and was not particularly looking to run, but an opportunity arose, and after making sure I met the eligibility requirements, I seized it.
One of the things I did well was build a reasonable organization out of nothing, on a budget. The main contributing forces to my organization were a) an experienced political consultant and b) an experienced get out the vote (GOTV) person. As for consultants, there are a lot of charlatans in this industry, and I probably overpaid, but as a first timer, those first couple months of retainer were critical to understanding how the game was played and what to focus on. I understood the importance of going door to door in my earlier days working on the campaigns of others, but this is especially important in local politics because there are lots of people who phone it in and don’t do the legwork.
The GOTV team was also critical, arguably more so. I piggybacked off of the knowledge of others by hiring a weathered hand in the local political scene. While the people I would ultimately get involved with had their own baggage and agenda, applying my GOTV team’s expertise from running decades of local races in my district was critical. So critical, in fact, that I was able to come within single digits of winning my home town, Bayonne, even though I was running as a Republican in a district that was approximately 5:1 Democrat.
There were things, however, that I did not do so well. I was too trusting. I let opposition researchers attend my rallies and take pictures of me. This later came back to haunt me when they distributed a flier depicting me as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Be prepared to test the limits of your conscience and sanity.
I also wish I had known more about the importance of special interests. Obtaining the loyalty of a few advocacy groups, unions, or local machine politicians goes a long way. Even though I, as a Republican, had a majority of the Democratic primary field supporting me, that was still not enough to defeat entrenched interests with a well-oiled turnout machine.
If you decide to run for office, my advice is as follows: Trust no one. Jump off the deep end. Don’t hesitate. Be aggressive with outreach and public relations. Don’t take untraditional constituencies for granted. Always remain fearless even if the dirty operatives get under your skin.