This self-test will help decide if you have the political personality it takes to run for office and win your campaign.
Women make up 18% of Congress, 24% of state legislators and less than 1% of state governors. While these numbers are small, women’s influence in politics will only continue to increase. Every Day Is Election Day (Chicago Review Press, 2013) is about changing the role women play in public policy. Author Rebecca Sive offers straightforward advice from women who have run and won! It's a practical guide to help overcome public barriers, personal fears, and run a campaign with humor, confidence, and no apologies. The following excerpt from Chapter 3 offers a self-test to determine if you have the political personality it takes.
Certain personality traits are required to achieve success on Election Day. Other qualities can be a bonus. These traits will assist you as you navigate the processes that are inevitable in any campaign. Ideally you’ll enjoy those processes. Alternatively, you’ll have the intellectual and intestinal fortitude to put up with them.
This self-test will help you to gauge how prepared you’ll be for your campaign and how much you’ll have to learn to stomach. It will also help you understand which of your stronger qualities will compensate for your weaker ones. For instance, if you’re someone who quickly assimilates information and effortlessly processes and makes important decisions but possesses only workmanlike speaking skills, you can make that combination work. Your supporters and your constituents, not to mention sister decision makers, will appreciate your ability and confidence in making tough calls. If you’re a compelling fund-raiser in one-on-one meetings with people you know, but you dislike making begging phone calls to strangers, you’ll probably be OK, as long as you’re willing to make some of those calls to strangers.
Consider former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, two highly successful public leaders. Both are smart and hardworking. But he’s empathetic while she’s determined. He gives long and thoughtful policy speeches that prove his intellectual heft. She downs a beer while dancing in a bar to show she’s got a soft side. You too will build and balance your talents and skills as you learn what they are.
Are you a happy person? Though Abraham Lincoln, one of our greatest presidents, was a depressive, I think he’s the exception that proves the rule when it comes to public leadership. Most of our leaders exude optimism. They know they need to remain positive, especially in tough times, when people need them the most.
Are you empathetic? The question here isn’t whether you like to hug strangers and kiss babies. It is whether you can make a personal connection to other people and care about their experiences. Can you demonstrate empathy in ways that a stranger can feel? For instance, are you willing to be a regular volunteer at your city’s homeless shelter or food pantry?
Can you hang with the locals? Can you grip and grin while eating corndogs or chugging a beer? If you can’t, it’s time to practice. And remember that “down home” doesn’t look the same in every neighborhood. But there will always be a way to prove yourself as willing to be one of the locals as well as to work for them.
Can you handle being in the public eye, even in private situations? Monica W. Banks, chancery clerk of Oktibbeha County, Mississippi, told me that her lunch is always interrupted, but she doesn’t mind. Her phone is listed. “People call late at night, and I answer.” Member of the US House of Representatives Cheri Bustos told me that when she was a candidate for Congress in 2012, her opponent always had a “tracker” at her events, a videographer who recorded every move she made.
Will your family members and friends stick with you through thick and thin? The United States may finally have moved beyond the days when the wife of a male public figure had to stand by her cheating man. But if you get into trouble, you will want your husband, wife, or partner to stand by you. You will want to discuss this scenario, however unlikely, with that partner and other family members. Just in case. And it can’t hurt to preview potential minefields with your friends as well.
Speaking of family, do you know your family history? When US senator Elizabeth Warren faltered during her 2012 US Senate campaign over charges she’d mischaracterized her ethnic heritage in order to take advantage of minority status in professional settings, she told the media and the public that she had only claimed what her mother had told her was theirs: a Native American family heritage. Make sure you verify family stories.
And on the subject of fact versus fiction, have you done “opposition research” on yourself? Do you know who you are in public records, in the memories of exes, and in whispered conversations between neighbors or among coworkers? Don’t leave anyone out, including and especially those who don’t care for you. One of the political movies I recommend you watch is Primary Colors, based on the life and lore of Bill Clinton. There comes a point in the story when the candidate for president and his long-suffering wife realize he can’t win unless his staff know everything about him. They have to be ready for negative spin about their candidate’s alleged infidelity.
Former Democratic congressional candidate Krystal Ball, now an MSNBC political commentator, was derailed during her 2010 congressional campaign when racy pictures of her were posted on two conservative blogs. New York magazine described the photos: they “showed Ball wearing a Santa hat with a black bustier…In her hands were a festive Solo cup and a leash attached to a young man, who wore antlers on his head and a Rudolph-red dildo on his nose.” Ball lost that race. But two years later she won her next “campaign”—to cohost an MSNBC political affairs show—because she possesses two winning traits: she had the strength to persevere in the face of embarrassment, and she was willing, as she said to New York magazine, to “just get it all out there. You have to be totally, uncomfortably honest.”
How good are your negotiating skills? My favorite story about negotiating has to do with Eleanor Roosevelt’s response to a request from a friend. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy was running for president, he sought the former First Lady’s endorsement. She offered it on the condition that, if elected, he would appoint women to high-level positions in his government. After his election, President Kennedy appointed Roosevelt herself, an internationally revered figure, to head the nation’s first-ever federal Commission on the Status of Women.
Like Eleanor Roosevelt, you will use negotiation to create change that will benefit others. Unlike Roosevelt, you will also use negotiation to benefit yourself. You may even need to negotiate your way out of a jam to win.
Are you patient? Creating laws and policies, whether as an appointed or elected executive, as a member of a board, or as a legislator, requires constancy with the opposition. Making the sausage takes time. As Barbara Flynn Currie says, “If you’re out to change the world the day after tomorrow, this job isn’t for you.”
Currie told me it took years for her to pass an early-childhood-education bill and then years more to get an appropriation to fund the programs the bill mandated. She liked the process and still does, more than thirty years after her first election. I’d probably shoot myself before it ended. That doesn’t mean we both can’t (and don’t) have roles in the public square. It does underscore the importance of seeking the right public role, based in part on how much you like to negotiate.
Do you have a habit of saying you’re sorry? Apologies sometimes have a way of backfiring, by suggesting that the power to have avoided the problem in the first place lay only with you. Because that’s rarely the case, work on alternative language for patching up relationships. For instance, practice language about trying harder next time or asking more for advice.
Do you suffer from “imposter syndrome”? In the class I taught on women in public leadership at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago, a student asked Currie, a guest speaker, whether she thought “imposter syndrome”—that common affliction where people who achieve success are haunted by the sense they don’t deserve it and that they can be found out anytime—is prevalent among women public officials. Currie quickly and firmly said no. She says those she knows all have healthy egos. Self-doubt can crush a leader, particularly in a fast-paced environment that requires decision making of the “gut check” sort. Gut check yourself on this one.
Can you bite your tongue even when your opponent is clearly in the wrong? Sometimes, you will rebut forcefully. But at other times you will need to remember what your mother told you: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” This advice comes in handy when your opponent is about to shoot herself in the foot. Let her do the shooting instead of calling her out for being wrong.
Are you confident? You must have some faith in yourself to even conceive of running for office. But are you confident about your qualifications? In your positions? If your resumé is short (“What do you know?” “You’ve had no experience”), you’ll need to be able to self-assuredly present all your positive attributes.
How green are you? Have you worked up a case for why your youth shouldn’t be an issue? Have your closest confidants told you your case passes the smell test? The younger you are when you get started, the further you can likely travel, so this is far from an admonishment to wait. Just be prepared for the naysayers and have your answers at the ready.
Are you willing to pay, and keep paying, your dues? If you think you’ve already paid all the dues you’ll need to pay, join another (nonpolitical) club. Paying your dues means doing scut work. It also usually means being willing to climb the ladder. Whenever you get the chance, be sure your associates and allies know you’re willing to put in the work. If they believe, it will show up in their support.
Paying dues also includes doing favors and asking for them in return. And it includes willingly fund-raising for yourself—but more important, perhaps, for others. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is one of the Democratic Party’s biggest fund-raisers for other candidates. I’ve worked with individuals who thought it was beneath them to ask people less important to give money. I remind them that we all put our pants on one leg at a time and everybody’s money is green. I also point out that US presidents do it all the time, and no one is more important than a president.
Are you willing to run, and run again (and again) if necessary? Debbie Wasserman Schultz started out at the age of twenty-two as a legislative aide. At twenty-six, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the Florida House of Representatives. Term-limited out after eight years, she moved over to the Florida state senate. At thirty-eight, she was elected to Congress, where she is now a chief deputy whip. In her spare time, she heads the Democratic National Committee.
Nikki Haley became a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives at the age of thirty-two. Now governor of South Carolina and the youngest governor in the United States, she ran for that office at thirty-nine. In 2012, news outlets as different as the New York Times and Fox News reported that her name was being tossed around as a potential vice-presidential pick for Mitt Romney.
Toni Preckwinkle had to run three times before she won her first election to the Chicago City Council. Now president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, she runs the government of a county with a population larger than those of twenty-nine states.
If you’re ready to rise despite your youth, and you’re willing to start wherever you can and run as many times as it takes to get where you want to go, make sure your colleagues are in concert with you.
Are you good at building teams and appreciating the dynamics of teamwork? Are you able to think of yourself not just as team leader but as a team member? You won’t be leading by divine right: you were elected or appointed to serve. So your job includes collaborating with the other waitresses.
If someone goes after you personally, are you willing to strike back? You’re probably swallowing hard thinking about this one. Don’t choke; remember this: during the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney went at each other with charges of disingenuousness. Both were using some very fuzzy math, so maybe both were right about the other’s lack of honesty. But if your opponent attacks your integrity as opposed to your facts, you’ll need to be ready to do the same.
Do you love power or the idea of having it? Loving power isn’t evil—if you use it for public good. On the other hand, if having power scares you, you may have a hard time using it to achieve good.
Are you willing to win only 50 percent plus 1? The availability of minute pieces of data will allow you to concentrate your campaign on very specific voter segments. There’s no rule that says you have to be elected by some people from every neighborhood. Just make sure you’re comfortable with the implications of a narrow victory.
Harold Washington became the first African American mayor of Chicago by beating two white opponents in the Democratic primary and later another white opponent in the general election. He was asked by the city’s African American business and political leaders to run, and he agreed on the condition that those supporters would fund and organize a massive voter-registration campaign in the African American community. He told me how he was going to win the primary; he said if 95 percent of African American voters voted for him, it wouldn’t matter how whites voted.
Washington knew that he’d be walking into City Hall as the mayor of a divided city. Winning election without a broad mandate makes it harder to govern. This analogy holds for appointed office as well. An overwhelming number of endorsers from the same subset may get you the appointment you desire, but you will have to build support among the other subsets in order to lead.
Are you comfortable talking about your faith in public, including how it factors into your policymaking? Are you prepared to make an argument for policy on religious grounds? Are you willing to lead religious events such as a prayer breakfast? (Which religious leaders would you invite? Which would you not? Why not?)
Are you a teacher? Three-quarters of all US teachers are women. In Forbes in 2012, Bryce Covert wrote that when EMILY’s List, a political action committee that supports Democratic women candidates who are pro-choice, conducted focus groups with “registered, moderate, blue- or pink-collar women,” it found they preferred to support “those who have an interest in community and service” instead of “career politicians or politicians who spent their lives getting rich.” These community-oriented leaders include “everyday heroes, teachers, nurses, firefighters, veterans, [and] volunteers.”
When Barbara Byrd-Bennett was approved by the Chicago school board as the new CEO of Chicago Public Schools, one of the most political institutions you can imagine, in October 2012, she said, “I am a teacher who happens to be the CEO.” And a spokeswoman for the now-defunct White House Project, which trained women for public and business leadership, says, “We do think that the leadership assets of educators do cross over with the assets needed to run for office.”
Can you find joy in a toxic environment? Your quest for public leadership takes place in a world that is often vicious. It doesn’t matter whether your town’s public square is big or small. Small-town, school board, and PTA politics can be as competitive and hard-hitting as those at the highest levels.
Can you take some defeat without complaint? The New York Times reported, “[Hillary] Clinton has little patience for those whose privilege offers them a myriad of choices but who fail to take advantage of them. ‘I can’t stand whining,’ she says to Marie Claire magazine. ‘I can’t stand the kind of paralysis that some people fall into because they’re not happy with the choices they’ve made. You live in a time when there are endless choices...Money certainly helps, and having that kind of financial privilege goes a long way...But you have to work on yourself...Do something!’”
Last but not least: Do you love winning?
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Every Day Is Election Day: A Woman's Guide to Winning Any Office, from the PTA to the White House by Rebecca Sive and published by Chicago Review Press, 2013.