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HARDWICK: Why do people run for public office

state-capitol-dome_webThe qualifying deadline for local elections in Mississippi has passed. On May 9 voters will go to the polls to select the political party nominees for mayors, alderpersons and councilmembers in most of the Magnolia State’s villages, towns and cities. It is time again to ask the question: Why do people run for public office?

This question gets asked often in the political season in letters to the editor by readers who frame it to suit their own interests. Some ask why a person would run for a job that pays less than the candidate is now earning. Others ask why someone would spend many times more to campaign for an office that pays less than it costs to acquire it.

The answer is that there as many reasons as there are candidates. Some of the often-cited reasons are change of the status quo, money, power, influence and lack of good candidates. Of course, most candidates will say that they are running because they want to make the community a better place. There are some candidates who just love politics, having been perennial volunteers and now see an opportunity to run.

Candidates seem to have a stock answer. They want to make the community a better place.

Many people run for public office because a local issue has them upset or because they have a vision for the community and feel that the current officials are holding it back. Consider the case of Sonny Bono. A well-known television celebrity and singer he had moved to Palm Springs, California after a successful show business career. He opened a restaurant and tennis complex named — what else? — Bono’s. His vision for Palm Springs was that it become more ritzy, more Hollywood, more glamorous. He also wanted to promote his restaurant by having a bigger sign. He applied for the new sign and was turned down. That was all he needed on which to mount a campaign for mayor, running against the bureaucracy.

But Sonny Bono did something else that people question about why people want to run for public office. He raised over $100,000 in his campaign for mayor in a city that was accustomed to seeing less than $15,000 spent on a mayor’s race. He did it because he wanted to win and because he could do it because of his connections and celebrity. He went on to change the image of Palm Springs to a more glamorous city by bringing in an international film festival. He later ran for and was elected to Congress. Bono died in a skiing accident in 1998. Part of his legacy is the Palm Springs International Film Festival By the way, anyone considering running for local public office would do well to study Sonny Bono’s Palm Springs political career.

Some people run for local public office because they are asked to. Consider the case of women and public office. Lately, there has been quite a bit of research on why women do not hold elective office at the same rate as men. A May 2008 paper entitled “ Why Are Women Still Not Running for Public Office?” by Richard L. Fox and Jennifer L. Lawless published by the Brookings Institution pointed out that although women perform as well as men in public office they are under-represented when compared to men. Their conclusion was that women were not running for public office because of several factors, as follows:

» less likely than men to be willing to endure the rigors of a political campaign;

» less likely than men to be recruited to run for office;

» less likely than men to have the freedom to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career;

» less likely than men to think they are “qualified” to run for office; and

» less likely than men to perceive a fair political environment.

Women’s organizations are taking up the mantle to get more women elected to public office at all levels. For example, Women for Progress in Mississippi, Inc. encourages and advocates, among other things, more women to run for public office. It provides an online tool to formally ask women to consider entering public life. The organization’s website also links to the national She Should Run movement at www.sheshouldrun.org, which “…is dedicated to dramatically increasing the number of women in public leadership by eliminating and overcoming barriers to success.” The Mississippi Commission on the Status of Women likewise sees as part of its vision to, “… improve the overall quality of life of women, specifically in the areas of education, health, economics, political participation (emphasis added), and race relations” and among its duties as to, “… promote consideration of qualified women for all levels of government positions.”

These are just two examples of organizations asking women to become involved in the political process and to run for public office. Thus, it is expected that more women will be running for political office, especially local political office, than in the past.

Generally, those who attain public office at the local level do not aspire to nor run for higher office. Most locally-elected officials serve because they care more about their communities than running for higher office. The positions tend to be part-time and they know many, if not most, of their constituents. As is said about local officials, they “are close to the people.”

Regardless of why someone runs for political office at the local level, voters have an obligation to learn about the candidates and then vote on election day.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Pease contact Hardwick at phil@philhardwick.com.


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