In 2017, I ran for local office for the first time. Like so many others, I was spurred to action by the Trump Presidency – and in particular the first travel ban. My father came to America as a teenaged refugee. And over the course of my career I have worked with countless Green Card holders, immigrants, and first-generation Americans. The xenophobia driving that first executive order was so out of synch with my lived experience and my beliefs that I wanted to do something.
I called my Congressman and I called my Senators. I did this day after day. I didn’t feel I was making a difference. I came to understand that Trumpism was a symptom of something larger in our society – a disinterest and disinclination to engage in sticky issues until they directly affect us or until they feel so outrageous as to spur us to action. I could shake my fist at the TV. Or I could get out and get engaged.
I decided that the place I could make the biggest impact was in my own community. I quickly learned several things about local politics:
- Congressmen, Senators and Governors usually start their political careers as local officeholders – on their town councils, boards of education, or as local representatives to their state legislature.
- It is often quite difficult to find candidates to run for these local offices. Notably, local elected officeholders are generally unpaid or low paid. Furthermore, many people who might take an interest in local issues are uncomfortable with the inevitable conflicts that might arise with their neighbors – people they have to see every day on carpool lines, soccer games, local parks or shops.
- As a result, an overwhelming number of local candidates (and therefore local officeholders) are retired, independently wealthy, or supported by someone else.
- This means the pipeline of talent to higher office – people with experience both campaigning and governing – is disproportionately skewed to older, wealthier people.
- Local politics is – or should be – much less partisan than state or federal politics. That’s because the issues that affect me locally generally affect my neighbor as well. That might be the construction of a new traffic circle at a dangerous intersection or the allocation of funds to fix a leaky roof at a neighborhood school.
In Greenwich, Connecticut, where I lived at the time, our town council was the largest local governing body in the country. In fact, with 230 members, it was the fifth-largest governing body in the United States (after the U.S. Congress and the state legislatures of Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire). The RTM, as the town council is known, was overwhelmingly comprised of senior citizens, mostly men, who held seats, uncontested, year after year.
When one of these town leaders was caught on camera in a town facility shortly after the Trump election telling a female town employee, “I love this new world; I no longer have to be politically correct,” then pinching the woman’s genitals, not only was he not censured or asked to resign his seat, a request by me and another concerned citizen to speak at the next meeting, was denied.
That’s how I got involved in local politics. Along with the other concerned citizen I met and the woman who organized buses for the Women’s March on Washington, we rounded up 50 like-minded people and ran en masse for town council seats in the next election. (You can read about our experience on Vogue.com, in this story that went viral after a local blogger tried to thwart our candidacies).
While it was never my dream to spend endless hours debating the budget for new police vehicles or detailing the finer points of tipping fees at the town dump, running for office, volunteering to support other local candidates, and serving on my town council was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
I would urge anyone who has ever thought about running for office – and anyone who’s ever read something in the paper about a politician and thought, “I could do better than that” – to give it a go. You will help shape the present and future of your community, ensure that your voice and voices of people you represent are heard, and you will meet a wide range of people from different backgrounds and points of view.
My experience in local politics led me to meet some of my absolute favorite people in Greenwich, people who didn’t have kids the same age as mine, people of substance who really inspired me. I think it also set a great example for my children that democracy is a participatory sport. If you care, just raise your hand and get involved.