Who Would Run for Local Office Again Right Now? Me, Apparently.
Local officials are spent after the pandemic year. What could make a person want to stick with it?
I occasionally remember my last campaign slogan with the grim recognition of an accidental hex. Let’s Do More! was plastered over the website and handouts for my small town, non-partisan city council reelection. Back then, in the time before the pandemic, global shutdown, and a downhill abdication of governmental responsibility for everything from public health to confronting generational, systemic racial injustice, Let’s Do More! seemed like smart branding. I like doing. Need a volunteer, I’m there.
Oh, how naïve I was. Plucky, cheerful. Eager for more, more, more.
Last year took so much, many local leaders have little to nothing left to give.
The New York Times recently published a story about the surge of U.S. mayors exiting due to burnout after managing their cities through Covid-19. It was a year of perpetual crisis stacked atop crisis, with none of the community togetherness — volunteer events, ribbon cuttings — that keep public officials going. Stack atop that the reality that local officials are, by virtue of proximity alone, in many ways bound to answer to those they represent in a more intimate way than state-level or national leaders. As the U.S. reeled and people needed to vent, a senator’s voicemail box might just sit full and unanswered, but local officials were left absorbing all that leftover frustration and outrage.
When states left public health rules squishy or absent, it fell to local officials to gather data and experts for guidance and try to save their neighbors’ lives.
I came to office as part of the Pink Wave, that bubbling up of women who ran for office after the 2016 Presidential election. I learned how to own my story, how to Wonder Woman pose, and ground myself before speaking. I could have had a doctorate in political science and a side-hustle in public health, but even that would not have prepared me for last year. Nor how hollow it feels not to have the tools to help the place you love when every factor causing harm is outside your control.
One day last summer after the horror of George Floyd’s murder gripped the nation, I looked at my phone at the end of the day and counted that I’d taken or made forty phone calls. Some were with residents who had ideas for how our community could start a dialogue around racial justice, but most were people who just needed to talk. The rush of grief was deeply daunting.
I became a repository. I learned people’s histories. I heard people’s fears. What it was like if their son left the house in a hoodie. In that time of uncertainty, someone else needed groceries and couldn’t afford them. Some moms were terrified they’d lose their jobs over decreased performance as they juggled school shutdown and all the rest.
A community service gig that is usually more about keeping tabs on road work and city budget stretched wide over thousands of people with deeply different perspectives on the pandemic, politics, and justice — blended with a generous dose of misinformation and suspicion. Basically, what was happening in small cities all across the country.
I was painted as a radical by some who saw change all around them and determined it was embodied in me. I tossed the anonymous letter to our house warning about Marxism, kept the email suggesting I’m sneaky and evil just in case someone acted up.
Certainly, I wasn’t ever in this for the money, but it would be understandable if the $5/month we make (pretax) no longer felt like enough.
By this March, the anniversary of last year’s shutdown, I’ll admit to feeling fried. The stress of the year had taken a toll on my body. My actual job as a writer was filled with the sort of stories that thrill me. I am puzzling over a potential book idea. After a year of strife, considering running again this fall — layering in the madness of campaigning and other people’s judgment just as life is getting a notch easier — plagues the exhausted part of my brain.
But as hard as last year was, I also saw so many of my neighbors discover their natural leadership skills as they organized groups and virtual events, and then pushed those they’d elected in the right direction.
My neighbors came up with I-spy games in windows (to entertain kids on those daily walks), collected food, left encouraging notes, picked up groceries, dropped off food and personal items for local refugees, made pharmacy runs for seniors, and organized take-out initiatives to keep our restaurants going.
I have watched pastors and a rabbi in my town stand firm and insist Black Lives Matter and that above all, we must love all our neighbors. Despite deep exhaustion among faith leaders, they made their own lives harder by doing the right thing.
I know humanists who have zero in common theologically with these faith leaders who used friendship and an outspoken voice to work toward the same goals.
As rough as things sometimes got, I also saw a community in the midst of multiple national crises doing what a community at its best does: people kept trying to find ways to bring us together to be better than our component parts.
I want to see them run. These are people I want to vote for myself.
A couple of weeks ago, a woman in town who sometimes calls with city concerns rang me up to say she had a book that made her think of me. She wondered if she could drop it off, and if I liked it, if I’d be willing to pass it along to the other woman on city council.
I got home from my office I found Okay, Universe on my porch. It is a graphic novel written by Valérie Plante, the first female mayor of Montreal, about a woman who shifts from community organizing to run for municipal office. The main character struggles to find her footing at first, faces misogyny, takes far too long at every door she visits, but in so doing gathers a group of volunteers around her who share a vision for the place they live — and the power in that joined effort is so familiar. It took me 45 minutes to read, and I finished teary-eyed on my front porch.
It was maybe too simple, too sweet, but also just what I needed.
There are two ways I think I could contextualize the past year in office. It was a crushing level of responsibility in a time of dramatic upheaval. It was also a chance to see the best in people in their worst moments.
If I hadn’t been doing this, if all I’d had to busy myself was watching those in power at higher levels flounder, it could have broken my spirit. Hard as it was, being in the thick of it with my neighbors last year is also part of what helped me survive it. I knew a lot about other people’s fear, but I also got a chance to witness so much of their courage despite it. I am a better leader, better human, thanks to them.
Hard as it was, being in the thick of it with my neighbors last year is also part of what helped me survive it.
If I walked away now or without trying to run again, I know the weight of last year could color all the rest of the memories of the time I loved doing this. As people are burning out across all industries, looking to switch jobs, and find more flexibility in something, anything new, I do understand that impulse.
But for me, serving my neighbors has been one of the most transformational experiences of my life. I found my own voice here, learning how to truly hear and try to help my neighbors. I witnessed how people can come together to improve all our lives, and after living through a time in which we all felt so powerless, I cling to that sense of mutually interconnected power.