The Rundown: How to Run for Local Office 101

“How do I get started?” Sometimes that very question makes the difference between wanting to run for office and going for it. It can seem daunting, no question. But it is possible. How do we know this? Because so many other women asked themselves, “How do I even begin?” and now have a seat at the table.

Every campaign is different, and each office requires a sliding scale of requirements and rules. But the opportunity to represent women’s interests for your community is too important to pass up, and Run Women Run is here to help you get started. We interviewed San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott, political fundraising consultant and partner at Kennedy|Mendoza Mike Mendoza, former campaign manager to Mara Elliot Marco A. Briones, and Director of Finance & Compliance for Política Campaign Treasury Stephanie D. Sanchez for real advice of running a campaign. Without further ado, here’s how to run for local office 101.

When Should I Announce My Intention to Run for Office?

Remember that old adage, “the early bird gets the worm”? This is especially true in politics. The idea is pretty simple: The earlier you announce, the more credibility you can gain and more money you can raise. Mike Mendoza is a political fundraising consultant and had this advice:

“The first and last months of the campaign are the most important. Having a strong fundraising start helps establish credibility with prospective donors, and the more money raised early in the campaign causes a snowball effect that makes raising money later on easier. Candidates should already have a list of fundraising targets, typically the candidate’s friends and family, that will receive calls and emails immediately after they announce. Although candidates cannot legally solicit contributions before they officially announce, they should have an understanding of who they will reach out to first and how much they think they can raise. Candidates also need to know when campaigns are required to file their fundraising reports in order to give themselves as much time as possible to raise money before their first public fundraising report.”

What Should I Do in the First 100 Days of My Campaign?

Your first 100 days will set the tone for the rest of your campaign. You want to be savvy, organized, and energized. San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott had these top things to keep in mind:

“Put together a database of organizations, such as town councils, planning groups, non-profits, and churches. Find a contact person in that organization, and arrange a meeting to get to know them and their issues. Many groups have a public comment period, where you can show up to introduce yourself. Their agendas are often online.”

“Prepare a list of people you will call to ask for money. This should be every person you have met in your lifetime. When you ask for money, ask them to support your vision. What is it that they’ll get in return if they support you?”

“Prepare a 1-minute, a 2-minute, and a 3-minute stump speech. Who are you (values), why are you running (experience), and what are your top three priorities? I was surprised that people really wanted to know all about me, including where I grew up, how many siblings I had, what my parents did for a living, and why I went into law.”

How Much Money Do I Need to Run a Campaign?

Let’s start off by saying that you don’t need to be wealthy to run for office. There are plenty of seats that have been won for $40,000 or less. However, money is crucial. It simply is. Your campaign funds are going to filter to large expenses you might expect, like ads and flyers, but also little expenses you might not realize, like thank you cards, clipboards, and pens. That said, where do you even start calculating how much you need?

Mendoza suggested looking at the past to measure your range. “The most accurate way to calculate how much money a campaign needs to raise is to first research how much previous campaigns in that district or level of government were able to raise in the past. Then, adjust that amount based on both past performance of those campaigns and the political environment of the current race. If those previous campaigns ended up losing in the end, it’s likely that the current campaign would need to raise even more to be more competitive. Additional factors like a competitive primary or if the campaign is for an open seat can also increase the amount of money the campaign should raise.”

Where Can I Find Campaign Donors?

Finding donors is going to be one of the most important elements of running a full campaign. Yes, it’s going to feel awkward asking for money. But what you’re asking for is an investment for the kind of future they want to see. That said, first you need to know where to find your donors.

“Chances are, you already know a significant number of the donors who will make contributions to support your campaign,” said Mendoza. “The key to fundraising is relationship-building, and people who already know you and support your reasons for running are much more likely to make a contribution than someone you don’t know. The best place to find campaign donors is to think about all of the relationships that you have built over the years. This is typically your friends and family, but often also includes current or former co-workers, colleagues that work in a similar profession or industry, neighbors, college alumni, fellow club or board members, and even your doctor or dentist.”

Mendoza added, “There are also publicly available lists of donors to other campaigns and organizations. The rules can vary between offices and locations, but political campaigns typically are required to report the names, contribution amounts, and contribution dates for all of their donors. Those lists can often be found on government websites.”

Wait, Do I Really Need a Separate Bank Account?

Money and politics tends to get thorny. Which is why we asked Stephanie D. Sanchez, the Director of Finance & Compliance for Política Campaign Treasury, for guidance.

“Campaign contributions may not be co-mingled with individual funds. Therefore a separate bank account must be established. If a candidate plans to spend their own money, the personal funds must be deposited into the campaign bank account before using the funds. The campaign bank account will be used to deposit all contributions received and for all expenditures.”

If you’re running in the state of California, you also need to take note of where your bank is situated. “The financial institution of choice must be located in the state of California (check your local jurisdiction in case the campaign bank account financial institution needs to be local),” said Sanchez.

What Are Some Financial Do’s and Don’ts for a New Candidate?

While we’re on the subject of financial savvy, there are a few do’s and don’ts to keep in mind. Sanchez filled us in:

“Aside from having to establish a separate campaign bank account, there are a few other things to keep in mind when it comes to campaign financials:

Do your research for campaign contribution regulations, which may vary depending on what office you are running for and the office jurisdiction. Find out campaign contribution limits and who you can and cannot accept money from.

A personal campaign credit card may be designated for the campaign. Once a personal credit card has been designated to the campaign, the card may not be used for individual personal expenses. Payment to the credit card company must be done from the campaign bank account.

Recordkeeping is essential. An accurate and organized system of all contributions and expenditures must be kept. Copies of contributions [that] received bank statements, copies of checks made out, invoices, [and] having a check register are some ways for record keeping.”

Depending on the scope of your campaign, you might also want to look into hiring a financial consultant to keep track of your budget and expenses.

How Do I Market My Campaign?

Voters want to know you and understand why you’re running. In other words, you need to craft a campaign message and market your campaign successfully. Here’s some advice from former campaign manager Marco A. Briones:

“Depending on the race, you should try to emphasize how your skills, experience, and ideas make you the best candidate for the position. Disseminating this message can vary largely on the race. Smaller races can still effectively employ tactics such as targeted print mail and door-hangers. While larger demographics can push toward a heavier emphasis on social media and digital outreach. All campaigns should have an in-person element, be it door-knocking or attending community events. People want to feel like they know the person they’re voting for, so in all cases, a balance of all three (print, social media, in-person) can help you meet voters and create a narrative that illustrates your involvement in the community you are courting.”

What Does a Typical Day Look Like for an Elected Official?

Here’s an interesting question: What will your average day look like once you’re in elected official?

According to City Attorney Elliott, “In my case, I manage an office of 360 people with a budget of $54M. We are the attorneys to the mayor and council; we prosecute on behalf of the people of San Diego; and we protect taxpayers by safeguarding public funds. It’s a complex job with competing priorities. I closely manage my executive team, which oversees all four branches of the office. This involves one-on-one meetings, a weekly executive team meeting, and a monthly all-management briefing. I also review every memorandum and report, resolution, ordinance, and policy that comes out of our office. I sit with Council every Tuesday morning, and I’m at all closed session meetings. I typically have a community function at lunch, and am out in the community about four nights per week. My days average 12 hours, and I typically work on weekends.”

That said, when we asked Elliott what would surprise people the most about elected life, she told us, “That balance can be achieved. I have been able to redefine my role. There has never been a female City Attorney, let alone a mother of two young children. My client and my community need me, and so does my family. I make it a point to be home for dinner at least three nights a week, and I do not miss special events like award ceremonies. I even go on field trips. As the boss, I can role model what balance looks like. This job is whatever I decide it will be. This is the case for all electeds.”

It’s Time to Run

To have the loudest voice in the room, you need to have a seat at the table. And while it may seem challenging at first, just remember that thousands of women are running for office this year along with you. Be bold, be loud, be brave. This is the year to go for it.

Run Women Run would like to thank: San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott; political fundraising consultant Mike Mendoza; Marco A. Briones, former campaign manager to then candidate Mara Elliot; and Director of Finance & Compliance for Política Campaign Treasury Stephanie D. Sanchez for their help creating this article. 

Run Women Run is a non-partisan organization that inspires, recruits, and trains pro-choice women running for office in San Diego County. To learn more about the organization and sign up for membership, click here.

Jennifer Cuellar is a content strategist, writer, and editor based out of San Diego, California. When she’s not writing about political issues (among other things), you can find her sipping on an iced chai while watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Published February 05, 2019