Lessons learned on the campaign trail
It was January and I was thinking about running for the Lincoln City Council. I had quit my job as a reporter for the local paper, didn’t want to commute to Omaha and had no intention of moving out of town, so it seemed my life as a journalist was over.
So why not?
Because the incumbent was Jonathan Cook. His dozen years’ on the council made him a lock for re-election. But a friend of his told me he wasn’t going to run again. Although Cook and I had always gotten along quite well when I covered him for the paper, he was ticked at me in January over my blogs on the fire union contract, so he was no longer returning my emails or phone calls when I tried to find out whether he was going to run again.
Before he’d stopped speaking to me, he’d told me he would make his intentions public in January. January came and went, and still no official word (although the Journal Star had reported he would run again, albeit with no source named).
I decided I could wait no longer, and on a Tuesday I scheduled a press conference for Thursday. Wednesday morning, Cook called a press conference: He was running.
Ah, well, nothing like a challenge. I decided to go for it anyway. But what to run as? R or D? After covering government at all levels for 20 years, I saw good and bad people and positions in both parties. I’d covered nonpartisan city commissions before, and the Lincoln City Council was far from nonpartisan. So I decided to run as an independent, to try to move the council back to its nonpartisan origins.
After six years of covering city hall, I also felt a new version of the O Street Gang seemed to be controlling the puppet strings in Lincoln. I also saw how the Dems and Rs bashed each other for taking money from either LIBA or the fire union.
I wanted to put power back in the hands of the people – so I decided not to accept money from anybody but them.
Two momentous decisions.
Among the first people to volunteer for me was a retired couple who live a few blocks west of me. I didn’t know them, but they felt they knew me after reading my stories for years. Although the wife had Parkinson’s and the husband fell ill halfway through the campaign, they walked door to door in our neighborhood, handing out fliers, and called “super voters” for me.
I had no idea what a “super voter” was until I ran for office. They are the most faithful voters and campaigns focus on them. You can buy a list of their names and addresses and phone numbers from the election office.
Another early volunteer was Becca Hurst, a full-time college student who owns her own house and works a job – but still found time to walk an entire precinct for me, put up signs, attend press conferences and do anything I asked her to do.
A 20-something woman who moved into our neighborhood six months ago also volunteered, walking down streets trying to convince strangers to put up yard signs. I didn’t even like having to do that – that a near-stranger would do that for me was incredible.
Another middle-aged man stood outside Open Harvest for two hours, collecting signatures for my petition. Then he walked down 27th Street trying to get yard signs up.
By election day, we had more than 20 volunteers – most of whom I did not know before I announced my campaign. We’d raised about $2,700 – all from individuals, most of them giving $25. We had only spent $1,700 of it by the primary election.
By comparison, the Republican candidate had raised $9,100 and Cook nearly $14,000 heading into April.
Some people urged me to abandon my promise not to take Big Money – saying I’d never get elected without it. I couldn’t do that.
But perhaps more important than Big Money was the party apparatus behind candidates. As a reporter covering campaigns, I didn’t really know how much political parties matter to campaigns.
While me and my volunteers went out and asked friends, neighbors and strangers if we could put up yard signs, the parties could tap into their database of people whom they knew from past experience would be willing to take a sign.
A Democratic newcomer told me the party set up a remote calling system that allowed her friends and relatives nationwide to make calls on her behalf.
And of course, both parties could target their Ds and Rs and tell them via direct mail to vote for their candidates. Many people told me they were getting hit up repeatedly to give money to Cook’s campaign.
While we worked for weeks to get yard signs up all over the district, almost overnight Cook signs sprang up on lawns like blue dandelions. As I knocked on doors, I’d see Cook’s blue direct mail fliers sticking out of mailboxes – which seemed like a much more efficient (albeit less personal) way of reaching the more than 6,000 super voters on my list.
Cook would send out several mail pieces, and Nelson sent out one or two, but I knew at a cost of $2,000 minimum, I probably wouldn’t do any.
And while nobody likes to bother people by knocking on their door (another window saleswoman?), most people seemed to appreciate the door-to-door work. One man told me in his 40 years living in the Everett Neighborhood, nobody had ever knocked on his door and campaigned in person. Which is why he said I was the first person he’d ever allowed to put a sign in his yard.
We made a cool campaign video that was 100 percent made by volunteers. Didn’t cost me a dime. My husband designed my yard signs. My 16-year-old daughter designed my banner logo. I was my campaign manager.
I thought we’d beat Nelson in the primary. He seemed to speak in cliches and platitudes and offered no real solutions to the city’s problems. But the LIBA crowd ate it up like red meat.
I was wrong: He beat us by about 150 votes.
Although initially shocked by that, the more I thought about it, the more I felt proud that we came that close to beating the Republican candidate. Assuming Republicans spent most of what they had in the bank going into April, Cook would have spent $4 per vote, Nelson $6.50 and me $1.40.
Not too bad for our first foray.
On election night, Cook called me and graciously complimented me on our campaign and offered to buy me a drink down at Zen’s. I had been checking out election results with my volunteers in my sunroom surrounded by pizza and brownies. I took him up on it and had a ball talking to all those Dems who probably would have shredded my reputation had I advanced to the general election.
There was Vic Covalt, the Democratic state party chairman who had told one of my Democratic supporters I was “crazy” (even though in recent years Vic and I had previously played on an unofficial basketball league on Saturdays in the winter, and gotten along well, I thought).
There was Rick Hoppe, whose relationship with me had become so strained that the mayor put another aide in charge of my many requests for information.
There was liberal blogger Kyle Michaelis, who had ripped me online and then in person at the bar, but with a smile on his face.
And there was Jonathan Cook – the guy who wasn’t speaking to me in January, which led to my accidental adventure as David taking on Goliath. He gave me a hug, bought me a drink and we all sat around talking and laughing.
And when it was over, he didn’t even ask for my endorsement.