John Tsarpalas: My name is John Tsarpalas. I train people who understand the benefits of small, limited government to win elections. Welcome to Commonwealthy the podcast. Today’s podcast is understanding the local political landscape. This is episode one.
Welcome to Commonwealthy. The podcast dedicated to helping activists and candidates who believe in smaller, limited government. Are you thinking about running for local office, or getting an initiative passed? Want to be a watchdog of your local government body? Just have a feeling that government’s out of control and you want to do something to make government smaller and more manageable? This is the podcast for you. Every week, Commonwealthy will have guests, interviews and tips on how you can make it a smaller government-freer world. My name’s John Tsarpalas and I’m a liberty activist. I also happen to be a professional campaign consultant and candidate coach. Join me, my friends and our associates as we show you the campaign and activism side of politics. Welcome to Commonwealthy.
This is episode number one. Our very first podcast. Today’s guest is my dear friend, political mentor and political partner, who’s now retired. She stresses that to me all the time. Kristina Keats. We’ll be talking about running for office. The things that you need to consider before you sign on to be that candidate. I think we should start off with what’s their motivation for running for local office? Why do they want to do this?
Kristina Keats: Usually, people are motivated by an issue. Not 100%. You have the people who have political ambitions. Most people who run for local office, something happened that made them want to run. They had a situation in a school, or the village. They wanted to, therefore, run to change things. That’s usually the motivation. My husband knew a lot of people who were political. There was one man who ran for mayor so that he would get sewers. He ran. He won. It took him 10 years to get the sewers. Then he left.
John Tsarpalas:So all he wanted was to get the sewers.
Kristina Keats: He wanted sewers for his town. That is what usually motivates people. Because they’re motivated by issues, they sometimes are very naive about the process. They think that all you need to be is somebody who wants to run. You just go out there and you put your name on the ballot and it’s done. They don’t understand that, oftentimes, there are forces working behind the scenes…
John Tsarpalas: Right.
Kristina Keats: …that will affect their ability to be successful. First off, almost every area, not 100%, but in almost every area and every level of politics, the two major parties in the United States, the Republicans and Democrats, are working behind the scenes.
John Tsarpalas: Right. It’s not necessarily the party, but it could be a union or groups like that.
Kristina Keats: But they are affiliated. Oftentimes, the people who are active in the party will support a candidate, recruit candidates. There’s a very good reason for this. The parties understand that policy happens as much at the local level as it does higher up. That’s the first things. The second thing is it’s the recruiting ground for the next level. So someone running for school board could, eventually, become a candidate for state rep. or state senate or county board. That’s why the parties care and they’re involved. Also the two parties have very different philosophies and very different views of how government should be run.
As John mentioned, you have the public unions. The unions are almost exclusively affiliated with the Democrat Party. That’s because the unions figured out, years ago, when they were first unionizing, which by the way happened in the 60s when John Kennedy issued an executive order allowing public sector unions to form. Which is interesting, because FDR was adamantly against it because he felt that unions should not work in the public sector. Beginning in the 60s, the public sector union movement started. They figured out very quickly that if they could control the local boards, they are basically controlling who is my boss. If we get all the school board people elected, then when we go to negotiate our contract, we’re going to get a better deal. It’s important for someone starting out to understand that this is what modern-day American politics looks like.
John Tsarpalas: Right. There’s also cliques out there, too. There’s a little groups that run this little local board, this little local office. They’ve got the people they are picking. Sometimes it’s formalized, sometimes it’s called a caucus system. Other places it’s done very quietly, you just have to know who the players are. So there’s ways to get into those groups and work through those groups, and there’s ways to work around them.
Kristina Keats: Right. It’s important for you, as a first-time candidate, to understand if that exists in your town. Now, I would not be one to say that if there’s a clique in your town that’s been running everything forever, that you have to absolutely be a part of that clique to get elected. You have to absolutely understand that it exists. You may chose to say, “I’m going to run against the clique, because they’re the problem.” But understand that it exists. We’ll talk later about how you can, in fact, defeat cliques, or caucuses or whoever locally seems to have a stranglehold on politics. It is possible to defeat them, but you must know first that they exist.
John Tsarpalas: Right. They have advantages. They know where they can get money donated. They know where they can get people to walk, volunteer, knock doors and get involved. I know around here, the Chicago area suburbs, the unions come in and they literally train the candidates.
Kristina Keats: Right.
John Tsarpalas: They help them raise money. They bring in money late so that other people don’t realize where the money’s coming from. Things like that.
Kristina Keats: The other thing that they have is they’re well-known usually. If someone’s been on the city council for 20 years, everybody knows their name. Fortunately, or unfortunately, in politics, if someone’s been around for a really long time and they have a familiar name, and voters don’t associate anything negative to that name, they will assume the person’s doing a really good job. That may, or may not, be true, but that is kind of where the voter starts. “Oh I know John Smith. He’s been on the school board for 30 years and I’ve never heard anything bad about him.” That doesn’t mean that people actually know what John Smith has been doing on the school board.
In smaller towns, they tend to personally know people. If you’re running outside the city, or even in the city, where people don’t necessarily know everybody, the fact that they know that name is going to be a big boost for that person running for office. If you’re going up against an established incumbent, you need to understand that and how it will be more difficult for all those reasons.
John Tsarpalas: Right. So there’s two ways to come at this. You can take on the insiders, the clique, the incumbents, head on. Or you can learn to work with them and become part of that and help them move in the direction that you’d like to see things happen.
Kristina Keats: Obviously, this depends on if you’re comfortable with what is going on. If your town, your school is being run by a clique and you like the way they’re doing it, then obviously it’s easier to get to know those people, work with them, join the PTA, or whatever group that they’re all a part of. Work with them then let them know that you want to run for office. You’ve got a built-in support group. If you are not happy with what they’re doing, it may be possible, but I have never seen a case where someone was able to go work with that group and change it from within. It just doesn’t happen. They won’t let you in if you’re not going to stay with the program that they’ve been using. For example, a lot of places have caucus systems for finding candidates. The caucuses, in most cases, have been run by a clique for a really long time. People are naive and thing I’m a really good person. I’m hard working. I’m dedicated. I can go to the caucus and I’ll get the caucus endorsement. The reality is, you won’t.
John Tsarpalas: Right.
Kristina Keats: What will happen is that then your alerting the caucus people, or the clique people, whatever you want to call them, to the fact that you exist.
John Tsarpalas: Right. Well let’s talk about Kenilworth Caucus. We’ve defeated them in an election. We had that whole problem.
Kristina Keats: Right.
John Tsarpalas: The caucus system there, was it two members from every local group?
Kristina Keats: Right. What happened, because of campaign finance law, this is national not just Illinois, where it was illegal for a not-for-profit group, like the Boy Scouts, to be involved in political…
John Tsarpalas: Right.
Kristina Keats: …so they had to change that. A lot of communities have done this for years, where the Boy Scouts, the church groups, would send people to a “caucus” who would then decide who’s going to run for local office. You ran the risk of losing your not-for-profit status if you participate in politics. Groups like that had to back-off then they came up with other ways of getting caucus members. The people who were behind the scenes, running those small groups, still existed. They’re invisible. They’re behind the scenes.
If you are not 100% in alignment with what has been going on with the way that the local clique has been running it, it’s going to be pretty hard for you to break into that group and get into office that way. Not impossible, but I’ve never seen it. I’m sure it’s possible. I know of people who got nominated by the caucus because they didn’t know that they didn’t agree with what the caucus was doing. The caucus didn’t know that they didn’t agree, or the inside group. But when they got into office, they didn’t agree. After that, they were no longer supported by the inside group and they became a target for being defeated. It’s really important to understand the little “p” political landscape before you venture in. Otherwise, you’re going to not understand what’s happening and what you need to do to be successful.
John Tsarpalas: How do you find that out? What’s the best way? What do you do? Who do you talk to? Do you start talking to people?
Kristina Keats: Yeah, you talk to people. Talk to your neighbors.
John Tsarpalas: Do you keep your goals quiet?
Kristina Keats: I wouldn’t go out saying, “I’m going to run for office. Tell me everything you know.” This is why, if you want to be a successful candidate, you need to lay the groundwork. You don’t just come out of nowhere and run because people will say, “Well, we’ve been working for years in the village board. Now you’re showing up and want to run everything. What have you done?” There are ways to find out. You talk to people. You talk to people who are on the board. You talk to people who’ve lived in the community for a really long time.
If you are willing to go and talk to people and ask them, say, “Just tell me about how the village board runs. You’ve been here a long time. Give me a history.” You need to know the history before you walk into a viper pit. It’s not always contentious, but in this day and age, since the two political parties have philosophical differences, it floats down into the local level. There is a whole lot of contention about whether, or not, you should raise taxes, whether or not you should spend more money, whether or not you should increase the pensions for the government employees. All of these issues have become very, very contentious. As a newcomer, at least understand where you’re going before you walk into it.
John Tsarpalas: Right. I think another thing you need to do is start showing up to the meetings, sitting and listening to what’s going on.
Kristina Keats: Absolutely.
John Tsarpalas: Get a hold of the budget. Look at it. Try to figure out what’s going on there. Ask questions politely, not publicly. Ask them in the background. Don’t get up at the meeting and start asking them a lot of questions in public. They don’t like that. Most of what goes on at those meetings is already figured out before the meeting has happened. There’s a whole lot of orchestration. Putting their ducks in a row before they ever get to a meeting. Those things are decided.
Kristina Keats: Right.
John Tsarpalas: I had a little zoning fight on a building I had. A friend of mine said, “That zoning stuff’s decided long before you’re ever going to go to the hearings. You don’t have a prayer.” He was right. They had already figured it out. They were just trying to go through the motions so that people could talk and they would listen. But none of that…
Kristina Keats: By the way, that is, in a lot of cases, the way that it is happening, that is not the way it is supposed to happen.
John Tsarpalas: Right.
Kristina Keats: Legally, a zoning hearing, they shouldn’t be talking about it until the actual hearing. Most states have laws, open meeting acts, where they aren’t allowed to meet or discuss things before the meeting. But in fact, a lot of it is going around that.
John Tsarpalas: It’s happening at a cup of coffee in the local…
Kristina Keats: Right, even though that’s not legal. As a first-time candidate, you need to understand what is happening. Everybody isn’t breaking the law and doing some subversive kinds of things. But you need to be aware that it could be happening. That, in fact, some zoning boards in some areas, are open and you can make your argument at the zoning board. As an example, some school boards are open. But don’t assume that everything is the way that it “should” be. Just do your homework before you get started.
John Tsarpalas: Let’s assume you want to go ahead and run for this board. You’re not going to be one of the insiders. You’re going to take on the clique. In most cases, our people are fighting for smaller government and it isn’t happening. Most cliques, no matter Republican, Democrat, Independent, whatever they call themselves, tend to want to build more, do more, spend more. They leave behind a legacy of more. Not necessarily a legacy of freedom.
Kristina Keats: Right.
John Tsarpalas: A legacy of more choice. It doesn’t, necessarily, happen. They want to control.
Kristina Keats: Right. If you’re going to join the clique, then just go do it and keep doing what’s already happening in your town, in your school board, in your state. That, in my opinion, is not the direction to go to move the country in the direction it needs to go. We really do need to get rid of the subtle corruption. Whether it’s the insiders making decisions outside the meeting, giving more and more to government employees. We’re going to assume, going forward, that the advice that we’re going to give you now is that you…
John Tsarpalas: And spending more.
Kristina Keats: …and spending.
John Tsarpalas: There are lots of ways to do the same thing outside of government. To get it done without taking from the people, without forcing people to do your bidding.
Kristina Keats: Exactly. Exactly. So we’re going to assume that you’re not a clique person. Now you need to understand that you are choosing a very difficult path. Not impossible. If you do what we are explaining to you to do, you can in fact win. I’ve run a lot of races where we were going up against the establishment and we win. But you win because you are willing to work harder and smarter. You can inspire people and you have friends. That’s number one. If you are a person who doesn’t have a lot of friends and doesn’t make friends easily, politics is going to be a really hard job for you. Politics is all about meeting people, talking to them and persuading them.
John Tsarpalas: Right. Politics is difficult for the introvert.
Kristina Keats: It is very difficult. Now I worked with a candidate who is an introvert. He made it all the way to the U.S. Senate. But I did not know that he was an introvert until he had already been elected three or four times. Because he was able to overcome his introversion and go out and meet people. Basically, turn himself on so that he could go out and do the difficult work of meeting lots of people. It can happen. It’s a lot harder. You have to be an incredibly motivated introvert to be able to overcome what needs to happen.
John Tsarpalas: Okay. Often, the local political landscape isn’t what you think it seems to be. Do your due diligence, ask questions, hang around, show up at meetings. Start to figure out what’s going on and who are the players. We’ll have some more ideas on how you can do that in future podcasts.
Next week, Tina and I will be back with some thoughts for soul searching and people you should talk to before you decide to run for local office.
If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, or you like the idea of where we’re going, let us know. Please, let your friends know. You can always e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out our website, Commonwealthy.com. As I said, please pass it on to friends, others who are also limited government, smaller government people. Thank you.
Kristina Keats: You win because you are willing to work harder, and smarter and you can inspire people.