During my brief career in politics, I ran for office on four separate occasions. In 1989, I ran for the District 20 school board and lost. Two years later, I ran for an at-large City Council seat and barely made it, taking the fourth and final position by a few hundred votes. Four years later, in 1995 I was re-elected, placing second.
That victory convinced me that I was the people’s choice, so I ran for mayor of Colorado Springs in 1997 after Bob Isaac resigned. The people spoke loud and clear, electing veteran Councilwoman Mary Lou Makepeace to replace the beloved Mayor Bob.
As Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.” And on the way, you might learn something.
Losing should teach you that it’s not someone else’s fault. If you lose, it’s not because the voters are suspicious of young people, or because you’re too liberal, too conservative or too inexperienced.
In a nonpartisan race such as that for an at-large Council seat, you’re in the driver’s seat. If you work hard enough, you’ll have a shot.
So here’s some advice for future Council aspirants.
If you aren’t involved in your community, you won’t have a support network. Being involved doesn’t mean participating in leadership training or schmoozing with fellow wannabes. It means sustained involvement with difference-making organizations, such as your place of worship, Care and Share, Habitat for Humanity or Cheyenne Village. These organizations, and dozens like them, shape and support our city. If you want to help lead the city, you first have to help build it.
Don’t think that your new colleagues will applaud when you take your seat and wait for you to display your leadership skills.
Before formally entering the 1991 Council race, I talked to my mentor, veteran political activist Tom Fischer (rest in peace, old friend).
“This is a K-Mart town,” said Tom, “and you’re a Saks Fifth Avenue candidate. I know you’re not rich, but most folks think you are — old family, raised in the North End, spent six years sailing around the world. That’s not a good biography for a local pol, because people want to be represented by their peers, not lazy trust-funders. If you want this, you’ve got to work hard and be seen to be working hard.”
A year before you run, learn about the city and its enterprises. When running for Council in 2013, Andy Pico demonstrated an impressive grasp of city and Colorado Springs Utilities-related issues. He was prepared; his opponents weren’t.
You can’t expect success if your campaign begins in January or February. You need to start building support and name recognition long before.
Consider Bill Murray, who ran for a Council at-large seat in 2011, then again for a district position in 2013, losing handily both times. He reinvented himself as an outspoken, unpredictable and unbuyable Council gadfly, and he took the third and final at-large spot this year. Outraised 10-1 by establishment candidates, Murray fashioned a winning coalition that admired his prickly independence.
Why are you running? If you can’t answer that question, don’t run. Being on Council is an awful job that pays virtually nothing and puts disproportionate demands on your time and sanity. Don’t think that your new colleagues will applaud when you take your seat and wait for you to display your leadership skills — they won’t.
Like any rookie, you’ll have to wait your turn and earn respect. If you care passionately, you’ll listen to your peers, and be content to follow before you try to lead.
Money can’t always buy an election, but the lack of money can lose it. Last week in the at-large race, Glenn Carlson finished fifth (out of 13) with 19,977 votes followed by Vickie Tonkins with 18,005. Each raised about $3,000, with more than 40 percent of their contributions received after ballots had been mailed to voters.
Another few thousand bucks with better timing, and who knows? Three grand wouldn’t have been enough to get elected in 1995, let alone 2015.
Don’t accept defeat.
Colorado Springs is a gossipy small town cunningly disguised as a city. Be part of the life of the city — go to events, make friends, meet as many people as you can and have fun. Use social media as an amazing tool, not a way to make enemies and influence no one.
Vickie, Glenn, Jariah Walker … so what if you just lost? Get to work — before you know it, it’ll be 2017, with six district seats up for grabs!