Take it from me. Running for an elected office teaches you something about yourself and about other people. My roughly two weeks as a fledgling political candidate taught me that.
For 40 years as a big-city daily reporter, I was the guy who sat in the back of the City Council chamber at City Hall, or a little apart from the table in stuffy rooms at neighborhood parks. I asked questions. I revealed little except for what I wrote.
That ended in late November when I hung up my notebook as a reporter for a big-city daily. For the first time since college, I’m freed of the professional restrictions imposed on journalists that prohibited much more than voting in the political arena. The reasonable premise for these is that a reporter shouldn’t be a participant in issues on which he or she may write. Now, or the first time, I may sign a petition, attend a political fundraiser, post a lawn sign, go to a precinct caucus.
I jumped in whole hog. I put my name forward as a candidate for DFL endorsement for public office in next year’s Minneapolis election. I sought a very part-time job filling a seat on the city’s low-profile but high-impact Board of Estimate and Taxation. It sets the city’s maximum property levy and authorizes its general obligation borrowing.
The public directly elects two members to the board; they sit alongside the mayor, council president, council budget chair and a Park Board representative. The two public members are a throwback to a Progressive-era charter amendment meant to underscore that setting taxes and incurring debt are too important to leave solely to full-time elected officials.
Some have suggested that the board is an anachronism. Minneapolis voters disagreed in 2009 when they rejected by nearly a two-thirds vote a plan to shift the board’s powers to the City Council.
Around that period, it was first suggested to me that I had sufficient knowledge of city finances to run for the board. I laughed that off, noting that I couldn’t even consider the idea until I was retired. Some people have long memories. Once I began letting people know that I’d be retiring, the suggestion that I run was repeated.
I had all but decided that running for office was too unnatural an act for an ex-reporter. But the closer I got to closing the door, the more the idea grew on me. I did know city finances, and I knew neighborhoods and people all over the city. I quietly began assembling a spreadsheet with e-mails, phone numbers and addresses. I began to mentally catalog political brains to pick.
The premise for a run was that one of the two incumbent public members might be stepping down. It seemed fair to test that, so we met over a beer. He indicated that he was inclined not to run, and that if he didn’t, he’d endorse me, even offering to make a nominating speech.
With that, I made up my mind to run. Days after I retired, I asked a party officer to list me on the DFL web site as a candidate for endorsement. I compiled a list of tasks — crafting my message, budgeting and raising money for a campaign, contacting endorsing convention delegates. I weighed whether to put a limit on campaign contributions and to pledge to disclose all contributions, even those not required by law. Both appealed to my good government instincts, but they’d also make even more difficult the already awkward job of raising the $5,000 I figured I’d need for a campaign.
One thing I learned quickly was that declaring a candidacy as someone without a political history was a sure-fire way to expand one’s network of Facebook “friends.” Party officers, electeds, ordinary delegates all wanted access to my Facebook page to check me out. Until then, I had fairly steadfastly limited my Facebook contacts to family and genuine social friends. To the bewilderment of my younger co-workers, raised in the social media era, I declined friend requests from public officials on my beat, for appearance sake.
Suddenly, I was accepting friend requests from a plethora of DFL activists and officers, and elected officials of varying ranks. I strained to remember whether I’d posted anything years ago that would embarrass a newly minted candidate now. But aside from my occasional cranky post about motorists who park in bike lanes, most of my posts dealt with such safe topics as grandkids and gardening. But I did start curbing my occasional rants.
Because the Board of Estimate is a low-profile office but candidates must run citywide, DFL endorsement is a crucial step in winning. I felt comfortable within the range of views that constitutes that political party. I had no history of party activism to sell to DFLers. But I did have a history of activism on issues limited to my neighborhood and my church. And I had one other important entry to the DFL. The L for Labor came as second nature to me as an activist in the union representing our newsroom for almost all of my work life. Labor delegates constitute a significant bloc of DFL delegates.
I also discovered that although I easily could put on a reporter’s persona and ask probing, even intrusive questions in the professional interest of separating fact from fiction, I also had an innate shyness outside of that role. It was unnerving to me to contemplate calling acquaintances to ask for a campaign donation or delegates seek a pledge of support for endorsement; I knew I’d have to get over that hurdle, and soon.
But before I mustered that gumption, I got an unexpected phone call that put an end to my ambitions. The incumbent who told me that he expected not to run had now changed his mind and was seeking a third term. That was his right. I was willing to step first toward filling the now-vanished vacancy, but making the case for unseating an experienced incumbent was not something I’d signed on for.
I was downcast for a moment until I realized that the lost opportunity meant that 2017 was wide open for the kind of joys one usually anticipates in retirement. A few kind friends suggested I consider other elected offices. But all of them required a considerably greater commitment of time if elected, and I wasn’t running for ambition’s sake but because I thought my skill set and the amount of time I was willing to spend in public service lined up well with the Board of Estimate.
My brilliant career as a Minneapolis pol is over for now.