To Campaign or Not to Campaign (Part 2)
January 21, 2013
Watching President Obama’s second inauguration, I can’t help but think about the advice of one of my professors in grad school. She suggested that I not work the Obama presidential primary if I wanted to run for office in Chicago as a Democrat. At least not work the campaign back home in Illinois. She said I’d make enemies among local members of the party—folks whose support I would need later down the road when I became a candidate. This professor used to come to class having just gotten off the phone with the former vice president whom she had staffed during his days in office. She had played strong roles in Democratic party politics. So I decided she might know what she was talking about.
It was tough to swallow, though. Obama had announced his candidacy for president while I was away at grad school. Being from Chicago, I had long been a big fan. I could claim a closer-up look at Obama than most of my classmates and professors. I had watched him with great interest since he gave a speech at a conference I attended in Chicago around the turn of the millennium. He had knocked my socks off. He was still a state senator at the time. Only later did I learn more about his community organizing background and work with affordable housing residents, with which I resonated. It was even later that he made that great speech at the convention that put him on everyone’s radar.
When he ran for the U.S. Senate, I jumped on the bandwagon early. I first met him at a neighborhood rally hosted by three of my favorite Latino elected officials—back when no one thought he had a chance. I marched with the Latinos for Obama contingent in the Mexican Independence Day parade. I attended a small fundraiser for him, hosted by a church friend who is his neighbor. His staff later included me—then the director of a Latino-focused non-profit advocacy organization—among those who stood with Senator Obama at a press conference announcing his support for an initiative important to Latinos. I later lobbied his office in D.C.
Surely he has no idea who I am. But I felt connected to him and was quite tempted to seek an opportunity to work for his campaign for president. Various of my grad school friends got jobs with Obama for America (which in some cases, led to jobs in the White House or elsewhere in the administration. Yes, I’m jealous.)
It turns out that it didn’t take too long for the Chicago powers-that-be to put their weight behind Obama over Hillary Clinton. I might have been able to work the campaign without endangering my own future as a politician. But regardless of the ultimate relevance of my professor’s advice, I was no longer a spring chicken with tons of energy and a willingness to live on the cheap with scarcely a place to call home. The fact that I met the man I would marry just as the presidential campaign season was getting into high gear also influenced my thoughts about how much of myself I could pour into a national campaign. So I let that boat sail without me.
As I settled back into my hometown after school, it was a different race that tugged at me. My state senator—the highest ranking Latina in the state senate and one of the politicians whose event had first introduced me personally to her then-colleague Obama—was being attacked from three sides in her own party. Partly because she was a woman who didn’t “know her place.” That really got my goat. Despite any wisdom associated with my professor’s advice, I jumped into a fight pitted against other Democrats. To make a long story short, we saved that campaign. That was 2008, and my reputation as a kick-butt campaign volunteer was cemented. And my addiction to politics was set into full gear.
Some of my colleagues from that state senate race parlayed that experience into roles with the Obama campaign. One even went off to work in the White House. But I stayed local, nurturing a new marriage while growing my political network in Chicago. I did tiny little bits of work on a county commissioner campaign and a state representative race. I launched an exploratory committee and started raising money to lay the groundwork for my own run—for alderman—but then decided it wasn’t the right time. Then the Illinois politician I have held in highest regard asked me to direct the policy team for his mayoral bid. Of course, I said yes. That last one nearly ran me into the ground. (In all of these cases, the main battles were Democrat vs. Democrat, by the way. So much for me listening to my professor’s advice.)
No wonder I was run down. I get tired just writing about it!
My sabbatical kicked off just as four local races that I cared about got started. The state senator was up for re-election again, and she had asked me to join her leadership team. I went to a couple of meetings and then backed out—for a number of reasons. But a strict sabbatical from all campaigns for the sake of my physical and emotional health was the most important reason and a good, legitimate, truthful excuse. In the end, the state senator didn’t have a challenger, so an active team wasn’t necessary. Nonetheless, with other candidate friends running in the cycle, I couldn’t say yes to one without opening the flood gates to other requests. So it was good that I had said no.
As for the other races, in one case, the candidate and I went way back. And he represented the community’s long-term struggle. Years ago, his father had been an aldermanic candidate and was murdered as he challenged the status quo. In another, the candidate and I had worked side-by-side on two previous races that we both found extremely meaningful. In the other, I didn’t know the challenger personally. But I knew the incumbent had to go. I had to turn all three of these challengers down when they asked for my help. I admit that I gave two of them money and one of them pointers. But I didn’t work the campaigns.
They all lost. Two of them by slim margins. In one case, the vote was so close that I felt particularly guilty. I figured I had enough influence with long-time friends and neighbors in that district to have personally delivered the number of votes needed to change the outcome of the race.
But I had genuinely needed the rest and the perspective. A number of things were easier to see from outside the fray.
Including that it’s not all about me.
When I’m on a politics-induced adrenaline high or doing something because it makes me feel valued, I may not be able to see straight. And if I was thinking that the success of any particular campaign hinged on my involvement, then at least one of two things was probably happening:
- I was thinking too highly of myself;
- There weren’t enough of and/or the right people committed to this candidate or campaign for it to be tenable.
The first point is especially significant because some people in my community were already suggesting that I was arrogant because I had the audacity to consider running for office myself. I’m convinced that some of those comments came from jealousy, a concern that I was a real threat, and gender and/or generational issues. But I indeed have to monitor myself to make sure I’m not getting a big head or accidentally coming across as such.
And I need to be careful to participate in a campaign because it is one that I truly believe in, not just because I want to perpetuate my profile and power. Not to mention, I get star struck with certain politicians (as you can tell from my recounting of my very minor interactions with Obama.) The danger of wanting to feel important by association always exists.
The second point is poignant for me because I tend to rush in to stand in the gap when I see a situation that lacks resources or leadership and for which I have appropriate skills and experience. I need to think more about whether every gap is there for me to run in and fill it.
Finally, taking a step back offered a good opportunity to discern who my real friends were. I tend to let people get close quite easily. Sometimes I forget that some of them may just want to use me or may abandon me when we find areas of disagreement. I need to figure out which people are my “friends” only when I am doing their political bidding. And who values me regardless of which side of a political fight I come down on.
I still fight with myself over how much energy to put into political campaigns that I care about. Once again, I had to consider whether I wanted to work the Obama campaign. My sabbatical ended just a few months before the 2012 general election, and I had friends making weekend trips to other states that were in contention. About the same time, just days after my sabbatical officially ended, I got a call from a woman I appreciate asking for help on her campaign for local office.
It can be hard to sit out and watch all the action from the sidelines—especially on days like today. But it felt like I was an alcoholic about to take a drink after being sober for a while. I had to say no to both.