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How To Run For Local Office, Part I: The Backstory


As those reading the sidebar know, I’ve been under-active in the last several months because I’ve been participating in the political process by throwing my hat in the ring for my local School Board, that this last Tuesday was the end of that endeavor, and that I managed to get myself a seat at the table.

Insert joke about “the first step to Global Domination”.

I thought that folks on the blog would be interested in how this all went down, what I learned about running for office (v. what I already knew), which expectations I had that were met and which ones were wildly off-base, and possibly glean some info about how to replicate the process.

So here we go.

Act I: Preamble (Political History Warning: May Be Dry Reading)

My local school district is a Unified School District, meaning that it serves not just one city.  We used to elect members of the Board “at-large”, which meant that every local election a certain number of seats would be up for the Board, and everybody in the District would get to cast a vote for each race that was open at the time.  This used to be common in my home state of California, but not too long ago a politically active group began suing School Districts that filled their Board seats this way, alleging that certain sections of the community were by necessity under-represented under such a scheme.  They were demanding that at-large Districts switch to sub-districting schemes.

This is of course a reasonable potential concern.  If you have 7 Board members, and the 7 Board members is historically “7 White Men” and “0 Everybody Else” in a community that is 20% Latino, 20% African-American, 10% Asian (All), etc., you don’t really have a representative Board.  That wasn’t the case in my District, we typically had minority and women representation of some sort on the Board, but there was a commonly held idea among the public that there was a “Latino” seat or an “African-American” seat, or that folks behind the scenes were influencing which folks were running for which Board seats to make sure that the Board was balanced between X of these and Y of that with M women and whatnot.  So when it was suggested to the existing Board that they switch to a sub-districting scheme (primarily to avoid getting named in one of these lawsuits) there was public support.

Me, I thought that the idea was at best a mediocre solution to a potential problem.  Everybody in the District would effectively be giving up their vote for 6 other members of the Board, and they’d get to cast their vote for only one of them.  But I can see the argument… already the folks who are most likely to vote in any community are the most well-to-do, largely upper-middle and upper class folks, mostly folks of European descent, skewing towards the older generations.  Sub-districting effectively takes away some of the power of that political block and spreads it out among sub-communities.  On the other hand, it’s entirely possible for those same aforementioned mostly upper-middle and upper class white folks to just turn around and gerrymander the sub-districting model if they really nefariously want power, and we know how well *that* works as a strategy, just see… every Congressional district in the country, practically.

At any rate, political science theories aside, that change was made. Prior to the change, every citizen of the District could vote for every Board member, and there were no restrictions on who could run for which seat on the Board, provided you lived somewhere in the District.  After the change, there were 7 sub-district areas, and each registered voter could only vote for the candidate who was running in that sub-district election, *and* only folks who lived in that sub-district could run for that particular seat.

So then came implementation details; there were 7 sitting members on the Board, who were elected in District-wide elections, and now somebody had to figure out how to arrange it so that there were now 7 sub-districts that were geographically representative, socioeconomically representative (hopefully with some sort of sane overlap with the City Council seats) and then the District would have to switch over to the sub-district model.

Without going any further into all the very dry details, it came out in the end that in the 2013 election half of the Board seats would switch to the sub-district model, and in 2015 the other half would switch.  Those currently-sitting Board members who were elected at-large but who lived in one of the sub-districts had a choice… they could either finish out their term in their City seat and then take two years off waiting for the cycle to match up again (or quit politics or move on to another office), or they could run for the newly- created sub-district seat *while* sitting in their at-large seat… and if they lost, they could keep their existing seat… but if they *won*, they would have to officially abdicate their at-large seat and take their new seat as a sub-district School Board member.

With me so far?  (Oh, sorry, unmentioned but implied detail – terms are 4 years)

Turns out that this is precisely what happened.  Four of the seven seats were up for election.  One of the sitting Board members ran for a sub-district seat and won it, abdicated their at-large seat at the swearing-in ceremony, and as a result we now had (a) three Board members who were elected in sub-districts, (b) three Board members who were elected in the last city-wide election who would be replaced in 2015 (hold onto that, there’s a hidden surprise detail there that will become important later, really wonky types can guess what the detail is in the comments), and (c) one empty seat.

By the Charter, when you have an open seat (due to death or abdication or what have you), the sitting Board can choose either to have a special election, or create a process by which they appoint someone to fill that seat.  It costs about a quarter of a million dollars to have a special election, and since we’re in California we’re already underfunded to the Nth degree, so that option was basically a nonstarter as far as the existing Board was concerned… so… although it would be *nice* to have an entirely democratic process of getting a replacement in the seat… they created an application process for that empty seat.

Act II: The Seed Is Planted

Scene I: A Pact

We’re now in Summer 2013.  One good friend of mine (I will call him Fernando for the sake of maintaining his anonymity) and I are sitting in the backyard of my house with a bunch of other involved public-school parents while everybody’s kids enjoy my pool in the summer heat and we are discussing what the six Board members are going to do to fill that last seat.  In recent political history, there was a character on the Board who was… ah… not universally loved among this group of active public-school parents, and everyone was having terrified visions of the Board appointing a bozo to fill that seat that we would all hate for two years.

Fernando and I are going back and forth about how one Board member can make a big difference and we really hope that they get some reasonable candidates throwing their hats into the ring for the appointed position and both of us start arguing that the other guy should maybe consider being one of the cats whose hats will be thrown, and neither of our wives is objecting that they don’t want to be married to a politician strenuously… and the result is two days later after respective Private Family Conferences while Sober, we both submitted applications.  We all (husbands and wives) figured that the worst case scenario is that we’re just upping the odds that the existing Board will be less likely to pick a potential bozo in the entire corpus of candidates if we just add as many reasonable folks as possible to the pool.

Turns out, neither of us were selected.  Fernando went on being over-involved in the School District, as did I, and summer passed and fall came, and that was the beginning of the 2013-2014 scholastic year.  As a side note, we both rather liked the person that filled the seat, so everything turned out for the best.  Fernando was about to gut half of his house and I was studying for the screening exam for my PhD, so either of us actually winning the seat would have come with significant side effects on our respective buckets of free time.

(– more forthcoming–)

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24 thoughts on “How To Run For Local Office, Part I: The Backstory

  1. Dude, I hate that when some politician calls a press conference, and just when it gets interesting, says, “More forthcoming,” and shuts down the press conference.

    Time for a big, black car:
    (the good version)


  2. Regarding election at-large versus by district, my county recently made this switch. I live in a semi-rural, semi-exurban county. For many years we had a county commission consisting of three commissioners elected at large. Five years ago we switched to five commissioners elected by district.

    How did that work out? The districts themselves are reasonable enough, with no obvious gerrymandering. So that hasn’t been a problem. But what did happen is it became easier for nut cases to get elected. The election is held in the off-year cycle from the presidential election, with the result that turnout is smallish. Voting by district means that you don’t need to fire up all that many like-thinking voters to actually schlep to the polls. So long as the rest of the voters, who don’t want a nut case representing them, aren’t really paying attention, it is entirely doable to get elected by a small but committed base.

    This is a solidly Republican county. This is not to my taste, but I can live with the typical classic Main Street Republican, who understands that the roads need to be paved and plowed, and who doesn’t think that public education is a Commie plot. The perennial issue with that crowd was whether to encourage more rapid growth, or slightly less rapid growth, and how much to worry about the infrastructure to support this growth. Ah, those halcyon days! What we got under the new regime was two complete whack jobs. One of them–and I swear I’m not making this up–cruises around the region on his Harley giving speeches about how “sustainability” is a UN plot to take away our liberties. The other three were not overt nut cases, but they weren’t of the stuff to stand up to the nut cases, and only one had to be persuaded on any vote. (I fondly remember an op ed by one of them with a semi-coherent thinly disguised racist argument against public transportation, combined with self-congratulation on his courage to say what needed to be said. This, sadly, was one of the comparatively sane three.)

    Four years of antics brought out the vote, and one of the crazies was voted out. Harley guy is still in office, and wildly popular with a certain segment of the electorate. Fortunately, I don’t live in his district, so I don’t have to look at my neighbors and wonder if they voted for this lunatic.

    So my conclusion is that the two schemes have different trade-offs. Yes, districting can make for a more diverse representation of a diverse electorate. With at-large voting, it is harder for a barking mad candidate to slip past an unengaged electorate, simply because the number of votes needed to get elected is higher. Which system works best for any given situation would depend on the local circumstances. Here, we were better off with at-large elections.


    • If you don’t mind, I’m going to steal this whole comment for the next post….

      So my conclusion is that the two schemes have different trade-offs. Yes, districting can make for a more diverse representation of a diverse electorate. With at-large voting, it is harder for a barking mad candidate to slip past an unengaged electorate, simply because the number of votes needed to get elected is higher. Which system works best for any given situation would depend on the local circumstances. Here, we were better off with at-large elections.

      Because that is true.

      There’s another advantage to sub-districts… while you’re correct that it’s easier for a nut to get elected, it’s also easier for somebody who isn’t part of a “political machine” to get elected. You can run for office in a sub-district and win with a whole lot less $$ than a city- or regional-wide election, because you can walk the district and your direct mail costs are a lot lower.


      • I have a hard time seeing any justification for an at-large only (or really, even partially) elected group in an area of any size and diversity. It’s not merely a matter of racial representation, but you end up with some areas inevitably getting screwed because even the minority members will tend to come from the more affluent parts of the area. District or sub-district-based representation with residency requirements may not be perfect, but it at least makes it more likely that people will be represented by folks who live where they live and therefore are more likely to have similar concerns.

        Austin’s system was/is an object lesson in this. (See, e.g., districting).


      • Chris, is that something that you think can be addressed via group elections (equivalent of proportional representation) instead of seat races?

        Most at large problems I’ve seen have been a result more of straight-line voting (slates instead of parties at the local level).


      • Chris:

        These are all valid points, and are part of the trade-off. My county has a population, as of the 2010 census, of 167K and change, and you can drive from one end to the other in a bit over a half hour. I don’t know if that counts as “of any size” for purposes of this discussion, but it’s what I’ve got.

        The county is, again as of 2010, 92.7% white. Did I mention that it is a Republican stronghold? Of those five county commission district elections last year, the highest any Democrat pulled was just under 26%. Interestingly, Harley Guy ran unopposed in the general election, and actually got the lowest percentage of any of the five races, with just under 27% write-ins, presumably the write-in being “anyone but Harley Guy.” It’s not that people are unaware that he is barking mad, but everyone correctly knows that the primary election is the real race. (He got just under 57% there.)

        The point about at-large elections pulling candidates from the more affluent parts of the county is well taken. The five we have are mostly pretty middle class: two are former high school teachers, and one a former fire fighter who now owns a lawn care company. Harley Guy claims to have “worked in sales, and management of a Fortune 100 high-tech firm.” That is discreetly vague, so take it for what it is worth. (What the heck: check out his website: http://www.richardrothschild.org/. It will make you proud to be an American.) I don’t know the backgrounds of the commissioners under the old system, so I can’t really compare. But on paper, the current crew has the sort of background people tend to claim to like in local government.

        So as I say, your concerns are legitimate parts of the trade-off. But I still think that for the particular situation I live in, at-large in balance is better.


      • Oh, I can imagine that works pretty well, though slates give me worry about political machines, at least where there aren’t party-based elections (and even where there are, I suppose). Anything that makes the elections more local, though, sounds good to me.

        Of course, Austin doesn’t really have to worry about political machines. The coalitions here are pretty diverse: West and Central Austin rich folks, weird South Austin rich folks, East and Southeast Austin middle and working class folks (the poor are gonna get screwed no matter what), none of whom get along over more than a couple issues.

        Rail and zoning are good examples. On rail, Central Austin rich folks wanted it, West and South Austin rich folks didn’t want it, East and Southeast middle and working class folks kind of wanted it, but were worried it would result in reduction in bus service, and the poor were going to get screwed no matter what. In zoning, Central and West Austin rich folks are pretty strongly aligned, South Austin and East Austin folks are (very loosely) aligned, and the poor get screwed. In short: nobody agrees with anybody else all of the time, except on screwing the poor.

        that’s large enough, population-wise, that at large might have downsides, but it sounds like a fairly homogeneous population. As long as there aren’t major geographic differences in policy issues (like, say, electricity or water access, or where people want to dump all the unpleasant stuff, or where a major airport is, or where a lot of people from out of area come to do business), I imagine at-large would work fine there.


    • “So my conclusion is that the two schemes have different trade-offs. Yes, districting can make for a more diverse representation of a diverse electorate.”

      But districting accomplished exactly what it set out to do: diverse representation. The “problem” is that your area had ideological diversity. I would say that nutty voters electing nutty representatives is a feature, not a bug. The response shouldn’t be to water down those people’s influence but, instead, to run better candidates, better campaigns, and aim to convert them to some form of non-nuttiness.


  3. The pedantic aspect of my personality obligates me to point out that seven states have none of that pesky gerrymandering polluting the selection of their Congressional Representatives. They are Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Delaware, and Alaska.

    At least, no gerrymandering at present. I can’t speak to what was going on when those seven states were created. The whole North and South Dakota thing looks suspicious to me…


    • Maine, too.

      The Republicans tried last redistricting (tried to put Chellie Pingree’s home, on the coast in Dist. 1 into Dist. 2) and it was overwhelming rejected by citizens; at which point they settled down into a sane redrawing of our congressional district lines.


      • I was actually mentioning those states because they only have one Representative each, so gerrymandering isn’t technically possible.

        But I do applaud those states that have made efforts to reduce the temptation of gerrymandering. Iowa is the one I’m most familiar with. I’m not sure if Iowa’s plan would be affected by the recent lawsuit challenging states that have removed redistricting from their legislature’s responsibility. Iowa’s legislature does have to approve or reject the the redistricting plan, they just don’t get to draw the lines. If they reject the plan, a new one is created by the computer for them to approve or reject.


    • Might I recommend “How The States Got Their Shapes”? It’s a fascinating book. The state that makes no sense (Idaho) has the shape it does due to an ornery judge/politician who wanted state lines drawn around him.


      • There is a show with that title or something very similar. It’s pretty well done and the host (whose name escapes me but he plays the lawyer on “It’s Always Sunny…”) does a really good job of being engaging without being TOO hokey… because you have to be a LITTLE BIT hokey when talking about state shapes.


      • I’ve seen the book, but it’s been a while. I should go check it out again. Thanks for the recommendation. Idaho is especially problematic. There’s one highway from the bulk of the state in the south to the panhandle, and the panhandle is very much in the economic sphere of Spokane rather than the rest of the state.

        I believe you’re speaking of Brian Unger. It’s a fun show, but a little silly.

        …How the States Got Their Shapes, that is.

        It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a great show, and hugely silly.


      • Have you ever driven that connecting route? Worst. Drive. Ever. It’s just terrible. Just go through Washington and Oregon. Which is pretty indicative of a poorly drafted state.

        In their defense, it’s actually hard to draw the state right. The original lines, which incorporated western Montana, would be okay, but it would leave Montana bereft of people (more so than it already is).

        About the best I can think of is to give the top to Washington and then seize a significant chunk (half, or more) of Oregon. Idaho would lose some population, and Idaho would be a huge state, but at least it would be one state (with the eastern part culturally isolated, but at least not geographically).


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