Local politicians should ask themselves: Have you made people’s lives better?


Daily Post Editor

You probably read that senators Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., announced that they wouldn’t be running next November. This is the time when candidates and incumbents are deciding whether to run next year. Yes, I know it’s a year away from the election, but now is the time.

Locally, not many races are occurring this year because the Legislature has forced cities and school districts to move their elections to even-numbered years.
A lot of council members and school board members whose terms are up next year are considering right now whether to run for re-election or let the community know that they’ll be giving up their seats.

If you’re an incumbent whose term is up next year, ask yourself this question — what have I accomplished since taking office that has made people’s lives better?

• Have you reduced neighborhood traffic?

• Have you made life more affordable for residents?

• Did you make it easier to park?

• If you pushed tax increases or voted to raise fees, did your constituents benefit from that or did it just go for pay raises at city hall?

• Is it easier now for somebody to find a place to live and pay the rent than when you took office?

• Are the small businesses that serve residents in your town struggling because of laws you’ve passed, or are they thriving?

• Have the only people who benefited from your time on council been developers and union bosses?

School board members whose terms are up next year should ask themselves these questions:

• Are students getting a better education than they were four years ago?

• Is the district hiring good teachers? Are the bad ones being shown the door?

• Have you been able to bring a sense of stability to the district, or does it seem as if the school board has lunged from one crisis to another?

• Did you accomplish any of the goals you had when you ran in 2014?

If forced to answer these questions, some incumbents might say they failed because they had a lousy city manager or superintendent. That’s a cop-out because the most important job of a member of a city council or school board is managing their city manager or superintendent.



A competent board can make a mediocre city manager or superintendent look brilliant. It requires setting goals, giving good direction, paying attention to what they do, holding them accountable and knowing what needs attention and what’s unimportant.

A need for change

I also hope that a number of mid-Peninsula incumbents, when they realize they haven’t done any good, decide to step away. There’s a desperate need here for new blood and fresh ideas. If you’re thinking about running for city council or school board next year, now is the time to get to work.

Don’t run if you just want to be locally famous or want something impressive on your resume.

And don’t run if your goal is to push a national political ideology on the local level. That never works. It doesn’t matter if it’s from the left or the right. Voters want solutions to their problems locally, not slogans that you can hear politicians spewing on cable TV shouting fests. People want local leaders who can put their ideology to the side and solve problems by working with people on all parts of the political spectrum.

If you think you can improve life for your community, then get going. Here are some tips for people who want to run:

Thoroughly understand the office you’re seeking. Obviously start going to council meetings or school board meetings if you haven’t already. It’s not enough to watch them on TV. Go there and meet people. Take notes. Read the packets, the documents members of the council or school board get before the meeting (they’re online).
Study everything you can about the city or school district.
Immerse yourself in the budget and Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR). I’m astounded when I interview candidates who don’t know what the city’s unfunded pension liability is.

Determine how you could make a difference if elected. Look at the bullet points I listed earier and ask yourself how you would accomplish those goals if elected.

Call some current or former office holders you know, people who have been successful at improving life in the community, and ask them how they did it.

Form a campaign committee or kitchen cabinet of people who want to help you in the campaign. Find a friend who can serve as treasurer, an important position. The treasurer handles the donations and files the campaign finance reports.

Election officials in both counties offer seminars that explain how to do the reports correctly.

Details matter because your opponents will seize on any mistake and report it anonymously to the Fair Political Practices Commission, and that will result in an unpleasant headline in the newspaper.

The rest of your committee will be useful in networking. They’ll reach out to their friends and tell them about you. You’ll need as many evangelists telling your story as possible. The best advertising in a local campaign is word of mouth.

Go out and have conversations with as many people as possible. Willie Brown, the former San Francisco mayor and Assembly speaker, has said that the person who gets to be mayor is the person who has talked to the most people in town.



If you think campaigning is about posting items on Facebook or Twitter, then you don’t get it. Local politics is all about people. People are more likely to vote for somebody they’ve met than somebody they only know from advertising.

Remembering names is important. People develop a connection with you if you remember their name and something about them, like their child’s name or their job.

Endorsements matter to some voters. If a candidate is endorsed by, say, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, that says to many people that the person is OK. His endorsement is the gold standard around here. If you’re running in 2018, start calling local officials who have a good reputation and ask for a meeting over coffee.

Be choosy when it comes to seeking endorsements, however. There are some political figures in our area who are radioactive, and their endorsement will repel voters.

And you’ve got to raise money. It’s a necessary evil. Fundraising can be the most awkward part of a local campaign. As a candidate, you have to call people and ask them to write checks for you.

Many donors expect something in return. You should tell them that they’re not buying anything when they give you a check, and that they’re simply supporting you and the ideas you will bring to office. But if a donor is stupid enough to say, “I’ll give you this money if you’ll vote for my project,” run away from that person as fast as you can.

Remember, too, that your donors’ names will be printed in the newspaper, so you don’t want to take money from anybody who has a bad reputation.

A good way to start off your fundraising is by having a house party to announce your candidacy. Plan it for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

Traditionally, the event takes place in the backyard, and as people walk through the house to get to the back, you should place a large basket along the way to collect donations. People will usually drop checks of $100 or $200 in the basket, and that will be start of your fundraising. (If you don’t have a house with a big backyard, find a supporter who does. I don’t know why this is, but I’ve been to more of these events in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood than any other part of town.)

I hope these tips are useful to people interested in running this year. Most of the mid-Peninsula needs new leadership. We’re headed in the wrong direction.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is [email protected].