The Right to Run

by Sura Faraj

In the U.S. we talk a lot about democratic participation and the right to vote. Sometimes, we talk about the obligation to vote and complain how few people actually do it.

But when political discussions or coffeehouse conversations turn to running for office or candidate recruitment, the pool for democratic participation shrinks to an almost dried-up puddle. The reason? Because a candidate who runs must be “winnable.”

In the past, I’ve expressed interest in both recruiting others to run and running for office myself. And every time, I get the same negative feedback. You have to be realistic, you have to be serious (as if anyone decides to run as a hobby), you have to be winnable, you have to have big money backers behind you, you have to know the right people, you have to have the right job. You have to do (or be) this, that and the other thing.

And most of these things have to do with money and traditional political power.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve spoken to many people about our need to find a new alderperson for our neighborhood. I asked many folks if they would run for office and I heard a different answer from each one, but they all translated to “no.” For some it was a matter of time and other commitments. Others had no interest in holding public office. But for most, it was a lack of confidence in winning because of who they are.

I’d like to propose an alternative. And that’s simply that we need to run more people, not less, and certainly not only those who will win. (Does anyone else see the irony and futility of doing that in a democracy?) We need to get more issues on the table.

In Milwaukee, about 10 years ago, an out lesbian ran for an open Common Council seat and lost. Was it worth it? You bet. As a result, on a political level, our alderman (the one who won)* recognizes the power of his gay constituency and works to further LGBT causes. On a citizen level, we gained one of the best and most organized LGBT groups in the city, whose members have been involved in working on local, state and federal campaign issues.

I propose that sometimes the most effective campaigns are the ones that lose, because each one is a visible measure of the power of the people. This measure shows up in votes, in history, and in organizing ability that may have impact for years to come. This measure reminds the winning candidate that they don’t have a mandate. This measure inspires other citizens to step up and run or help run a campaign. Without this critical involvement, our “democracy” will surely remain in the hands of those who hold financial power.

So, next time someone starts complaining about their neighborhood, city or state politics, don’t just whine with them. Instead, you know what to dosit down together and start planning.

It’s possible that your everyday citizen who is intelligent, thoughtful, concerned and articulate might change the face of your neighborhood, city or state, and may indeed end up being the best candidate on the ballot.


*Ironically, this same Alderman, Michael D’Amato has made many residents unhappy with his push to ease zoning restrictions for developers, mainly on prime river space. His uber-development is the impetus for this article and, I hope, many candidates running against him.

You will find this essay in the Summer 2006 issue of Nerve House, coming out June 24.

Want to contact Sura? 414.263.1513

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster. Based on work by sura and bs.  Page last modified on December 12, 2008

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