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Maybe You Should Run for Office. Here’s How.

The Bay’s How-To newsletter series (sign up here) is an extension of By The People, a series of episodes looking into how democracy functions in the spaces around us — and where, exactly, each of us can plug in. These features include changemakers who have learned how to get involved locally and who are now sharing their step-by-step guide with you.

The 2016 presidential election motivated many to get involved in politics, as seen through a higher voter turnout, and more women than ever running for office. Social inequalities were made visible during the pandemic, and specifically, the ongoing deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police propelled people to the streets. It marked the summer of 2020 as the biggest protest for racial justice in a generation, and the Bay Area was no exception. Throughout the region, specifically in downtown Oakland and San Jose, a number of young queer people of color decided to run for office in the cities they called home.

One of them was Alex Lee. Right before the pandemic, Bay Area born and raised, Lee moved back home with his parents in San Jose. He had been in Sacramento working for Senator Henry Stern crafting public safety, education, housing and senior related legislation. Still, Lee felt disconnected from his neighbors. Then, Assemblymember Chu announced in 2019 that he would not be seeking reelection for the 25th district that makes up Fremont, Santa Clara, San Jose, Milpitas and Newark. Lee decided to run for office.

Thinking ahead, he decided to take on the role of Field Supervisor for Silicon Valley Assemblymember Evan Low, so that he would be ready to run for office. Lee believes the pandemic showed how government can be effective, a direct tool in improving people’s lives, but it needed to be improved and modernized. When Lee told his parents of his future plans they said he was young enough to go for it. “I could literally restart my life four times and still be the age of my current surviving grandma,” Lee said.

In November 2020 Lee won his race for State Assemblymember and became the youngest state legislator in almost a century, representing the 25th district. He’s also the first openly bisexual state legislator in California history. While there are many ways to run for office, Lee’s journey and tips highlight his unique experience of running for office during a pandemic.

Alex is now serving as California’s State Assemblymember in Sacramento. We caught up with him last month to put together tips from his experience running for office. Here are his tips:

1. Ask Yourself Some Tough Questions

A crucial first step in running for office is getting real with yourself. Lee says the question he asks everyone who is considering running for any level of office is, “Do you feel passionate enough to do the job? And, do you feel educated enough to know the job you want to do?”

Lee explored this question through his involvement in student government and taking various internships to find out what it was really like to be in office. Although his journey took him to the state capitol to do important policy work, he wasn’t on the ground connecting with residents every day. Part of the reflection is really think about what job best fits you and your desired impact, he said. Ultimately, if you care about your school community perhaps running for a school board would be the best fit or working on school policy at the state legislature level, but those two roles are different, he said.

“I don’t believe in running just to run for something and be an elected official. I know a lot of people insultingly told me, ‘Oh, Alex you should run for school board or city council instead, and then you can run for state assembly.’ And I was like, it’s offensive to those jobs, because those are real jobs where real decisions are made. And I’m not going to use it as a stepping stone.”

If you want to run for some fake idea of clout, Lee said, “there is no clout, there is no glory. Plus, people know when you’re faking it.” For example, during the election even when people didn’t agree with Lee on all issues or differed ideologically, they supported him because he was genuine and authentic. In his work now, he’s able to get bipartisan support on issues he cares about.

2. Learn How to Swim by Jumping In

Lee got his start by participating in student government as Student Body President while he was in college at UC Davis. He represented 30,000 students, which he compares to being a mayor of a small town. As Study Body President he advocated for lowering tuition, increasing student services, and tackling the local housing scarcity and affordability — all while closing the $13 million budget deficit of the student association.

Through this experience he learned the fundamentals of campaigning which he says are similar across all types of races, and only vary in scale. Before running for Assemblymember he was also a legislative staffer at the state Capitol, where he helped write the bills and prepare all the needed documents for the Assemblymember he worked with.

In terms of campaigning, Lee just jumped in. “My timeline is [legislative] staff and student government,” Lee said. “Then someone asked me to be their campaign manager after never literally running a real campaign before.” He applied the same principles of his run for UC Davis Student Body President and it turned out to be such a successful campaign that he was asked to be a campaign manager once again.

He credits his friends and mentors that helped him demystify the process. “Elections are made intentionally to be exclusive, intimidating. But once you kind of strip down a lot of the B.S. and ask, ‘Why do people do these things?’ And their answer was, ‘Well because they just do it.’  Lee decided to take a different path. That meant Lee’s campaign would be free from some of the traditional obligations of campaigning, most of which would have required him to spend time fundraising instead of actually going out to get votes.

3. Don’t Be Afraid To Do Things Your Way

Some of the things Lee decided not to do are actually pretty common in the election process. For example, hiring consultants. In California, you can hire a political consultant to help with strategy, communications, fundraising, polling, or research. For many first time candidates, having a political consultant with experience and expertise can be an invaluable resource in navigating elections, although pricey. Lee passed on getting a consultant because it was a cost-saver and he says he already knew his strategy.

Because of the high cost of running for office there is a lot of money that needs to be raised to break even. But, that also changes the mindset and focus of the campaign in Lee’s opinion. “Consultants would have told me to do otherwise,” he said. “To this day, I still don’t have any consultants.”

The biggest surprise for Lee was that his strategy and methods worked. He was competing against nine total people who had been in politics longer than he was alive, Lee had no elected title, was not well known, and he was not rich. “I don’t have any of these advantages. I just went out there every day with my team and we talked to people and we shared progressive values and we weren’t shy about saying the things that we wanted to do,” he said. “It’s translated to the things we are doing in office now. We’re doing exactly what I said I would do. And I think there’s a lot of people in my community who are really heartened by that.”

4. Don’t Let Money Run Your Campaign

As you can imagine Lee was serious about not centering money in his campaign or his mindset. He refers to what he calls “industrial-electoral-complex” where most candidates spend most of their time raising money instead of actually going out to get votes. “I kind of flipped it,” Lee said. “I mean, the people I know have net worth that is close to zero or are young people with student debt so I knew we were always going to be at a disadvantage. And I think our approach is hopefully going to be a model for the future.”

Now in office, he doesn’t regret his decisions and is actually relieved. In Lee’s campaign the average donation was less than $100 per individual. To this day the $20 dollars someone donated because he begged them to still hold weight. “It’s not objectively like the most money in the world, but it’s still meaningful. You feel at least a human courtesy to that person,” he said.

Imagine that donations are at the $1,000+ levels from plastic companies, petrol companies and all sorts of industries. “No one drops political money out of nowhere. It’s not like I just thought of donating philanthropy. There is a relationship, there is real and perceived influence of money,” Lee said. His decision to not accept corporate or special interest money now allows Lee to have time to talk to his constituents instead of lobbyists. He doesn’t build relationships with the intention of it translating into money. “There are some people who say ‘I’ll take the money and I’ll vote against them, it doesn’t matter. But the perceived damage is just as bad as the real damage sometimes,” he said.

5. Lee’s Mantra: If You’re Not at the Table, You’re on the Menu

When I asked Lee why he thinks it’s important for young people of color to run for office he said: “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” especially, he said, “if you’re young, queer and and a person of color.”

Lee asks people, “Do you want your future decided by someone who is probably very well off, has housing security, has economic security, could be old, could be white, could be very straight, making decisions for your very not rich, very not straight, not white life?” Lee says empathy can only go so far, even for himself.

“I don’t identify as a woman or non-binary, I don’t know what that experience is like. We should all strive to be empathetic and understand people’s lives but it’s another thing to live in those shoes every single day,” he said. Lee said it is much much easier to advocate for the working class and poor when you’ve experienced it first-hand rather than it being abstract. “We should be the ones making decisions because I think that’s the majority of us,” he said.

Isabeth Mendoza is the engagement producer for The Bay, a podcast that explores local news every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We launched a newsletter and episode series called By The People shortly after the U.S. Election Day in 2020. The purpose of the series was to look into how democracy functions in the spaces around us and by extension, the newsletter continued the conversation focusing on how to plug in. We looked at how to run for office, how to use digital spaces for advocacy and how to get a measure on a ballot. If any of these spark your curiosity, keep reading because we break it down for you in simple how-to guides.

Copyright 2021 KQED