Running for Office? Thirteen Survival Tips


Dear Prospective Candidate:

I hear you’ve been thinking about running for the Seattle City Council. If you’re new to this political game, I thought I’d give you an idea of what it means to run for an elective position in Seattle. Here are 13 tips from someone who has been there, done that.

  1. Deciding to run may be the easiest thing you’ll do. Next — after you’ve paid your filling fee and filed the necessary paperwork — you will need to find a treasurer for your campaign. If you don’t have a savvy friend who’s willing to volunteer, you’d best hire a pro. Keeping track of ethics and election laws and meeting financial reporting deadlines isn’t for the faint of heart.
  2. You will also need a campaign manager, someone to maintain your calendar, boss you around and make sure you keep appointments. You may also want to find a political consultant. They’re not free, but, if they’re good, they’ll be worth every thousand or five or ten.
  3. Get ready for endless public speaking. You will be asked to speak at campaign forums, to community groups, business and labor leaders, chambers of commerce, neighborhood associations, legislative district meetings, and gatherings of every special interest from more-bike-trails to no-new-taxes. You’ll need to develop a two-minute elevator speech: a concise statement of who you are and why people should vote for you.
  4. Be prepared for questions from reporters. Some you may not expect and you must learn the stock politician’s response: Just say “that’s a great question — but what I was hoping you’d ask was….” Then you can substitute something you prepped for.
  5. Is there anything embarrassing in your background? If so, you can be certain your opponents will find it. You may be better off telling it yourself rather than waiting to be publicly outed and ridden out of town.
  6. Dress for the job you’re seeking. All you need are two or three professional outfits (just max out your Visa card). Your new uniform should be kept in tip-top shape: no wrinkles, coffee stains or grease spots please. Invest in comfortable footgear: forget open toes or teetery heels. Remember that Kamala Harris wore sneakers with her campaign pantsuits and look where she is now.
  7. Prepare to spend beaucoup hours asking for money and endorsements. Campaigns don’t run on wishes and you have to get on the phone, knock on doors, and arrange meet-the-candidate nights. Forget home life and friendships. For the next few months you’re on the campaign trail during waking hours and reliving your flub-ups at night.
  8. Don’t shy from door knocking. It is the key to success in district races. People like the personal approach: a candidate at the door begging for votes, a candidate forced to listen to their gripes. You’ll wear out at least one pair of sneakers, but, heck, getting known is worth a few blisters.
  9. Stay healthy if you can. Eat right, take small portions and don’t indulge much if at all. Wash your hands until they bleed and try to stay clear of obvious germs. Nothing is worse than campaigning while dealing with a cold or sore throat, both of which are virtually guaranteed.
  10. Be prepared for large doses of ugliness, threats, and cheap-shot negativity. You won’t escape. Try to adopt an inner calm, a positive mantra, something profound like: “This too will pass.”
  11. Avoid negative campaigning or casting aspersions. Being gracious and taking the high road will win out in the long run. Or so your grandmother told you.
  12. If you win – and let’s hope for the best – you’re not finished with the campaign. You will have a mountain of bills to pay and chores to do: thank you notes to contributors, filing away campaign literature and collecting the right staff to help you run your office.
  13. The good news is that the hard work of campaigning is over, at least for a while. The bad news is that you now must learn a completely different trade: how to operate as an elected official and where to start on the heap of things that you promised voters you’d accomplish. Friend, your education is just beginning.
Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at


  1. Great advice, Jean!
    It’s a wonder anyone seeks public office nowadays.
    No. 14 ought to be: Hire a shrink and have him/her always at the ready.

  2. Great advice, Jean!

    I would add

    14. You AND your spouse will be subject to public disclosure of your financial assets during your campaign and every year thereafter while you serve office. This came as a nasty surprise to my husband who was a board member of a family owned business, and a client list was demanded. He appealed successfully to the PDC over that client list.
    15. Keep friends around you who have a sense of humor.
    16. Take your work seriously and yourself lightly.
    17. Give yourself and those around you space for grace.
    18. My husband learned to cook. That was a godsend.
    19. Build coalitions and allies. We get so much more done that way.
    20. Give everyone credit for their good work and say thank you often.

  3. While I would flip around the first 3 on this list (a consultant can help you find a professional treasurer and a campaign manager), I would emphasize a bit more on fundraising. If you are not comfortable asking your close friends and family for money, you are not likely going to be able to ask strangers.

    Other realities:
    – Your kid/relative is not likely qualified to be a campaign manager. And you don’t want to subject them to that anyway. You need your family/significant others/best friends to serve as your support system, not your campaign team.
    – There are campaign professionals for a reason. While you may initially balk at paying someone a couple grand a month, they can prevent you from paying $20 for a non-union printed yard sign from some online source (hint: they are only $6, including the stake, at a local union outfit), printing (again, non-union) flyers at some other online source, and more. And they’ll explain why using union printer shops matter in this area, at least if you plan on running as a Democrat.
    – Seek out former elected officials for guidance BEFORE you decide to run. You’ll get the kind of “what it’s really like” guidance Jean is giving, and more, and they can steer you to good political professionals and warn you about those who just phone it in.
    – This isn’t Long Island, NY. People who somehow believe they *know* what you think and *will do* are going to dig deep, and take things massively out of context, if it fits their agenda. They will be mean, vile, and lie just as much as George Santos, if they think they can take you down. See also: The Stranger.

  4. i’ve always admired Jean Godden and appreciated her advice to others. Seattle needs good people in elective office. I ran for office in 2005 and came in second. Doorbelling introduced me to thousands of people who I wanted to come back and help. Among the indignities was coming downstairs one morning and my patient wife telling me she had sent a rebuke email to a famously vindictive political writer who had been relentlessly nasty about my campaign. That writer wrote a follow up column saying I was so gutless that I put my wife up to complaining to “writers.” I was pretty shocked such a nastygram was allowed into print by editors. On another occasion, an ankle biter from The Stranger ridiculed the many nieces and nephews who came to one of my events. Having spent my adult life in journalism, I was pretty shocked to learn that political writers just make up stuff and family members, even kids, can be targets. Politics ain’t bean bag. I salute everyone who enters the fray and sets out to make our city better.

      • Actually it’s true, Ellis. I could cite other examples. Not all writers do that but the problem has worsened because much political writing is done by self styled activist journalists, who frequently work for their own blog or an alternative press. Anyone running for office should be prepared for the best and the worst.

  5. I would imagine that once you win, the criticism that you get from opposing party doesn’t hurt nearly as much as what you get from your supporters and you will get that.
    Your supporters want everything fixed like you can wave a wand and do that.

  6. There’s another tip I learned in working with my good friend Jean Godden on her races — that’s reporters make the best of candidates. That’s one thing ol’ George Santos could not pull off. Reporters cringe at stretching the truth, they hate and often refuse to go negative, they know what deadlines mean and stick with them — and perhaps for raising money, they know they have to do it, do it personably and with persistence. And they do.
    Unlike other professionals who run, reporters know how to listen, to write things down, and to be brief (most of the time). Their work clock is longer — and their penchant for crafting the right phrase at the right time works.
    More than anything, candidates like Jean are rare to extinct these days: they knew the history of what was Seattle, when it was “nice”, and when you put everyone in the City first — not just your neighborhood!
    Thank you, Jean.

  7. Full disclosure: Cathy was my Campaign consultant when I ran. But I did not pay her to say nice things about me, some of which are factual, some a little inflated. Thank you, Cathy. However, I should say that I started campaigning for the first race totally clueless about basics. My worst problem was in trusting reporters, my former colleagues, not to pick up the stupidest thing I blurted out and headlining it. Happened more than once; it was a wonder I made it into office.

  8. Great advice. But then candidates get lots of advice & frequently don’t take it. If they did, they’d likely not be candidates.

    But, that said, my single piece of advice to prospective candidates has always been to find a friend they can call and have a beer with when you become paranoid, which you will. It’s a low budget way of caring for your mental health.

    And I’d counter the argument about hiring your kid as a campaign manager. I did it and it kept him out of politics for decades now.


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