How To Run For Office: Helpful Advice From Julián And Joaquín Castro
Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor, who most recently served as Secretary of Housing & Urban Development in the Obama administration joined his brother U.S. Representative, Joaquín Castro, to share campaign experiences and answer questions about running for office during a Facebook Live session on Sunday, May 22.
The brothers were joined by Rey Saldaña who has served on San Antonio’s city council since 2011.
There may not be a more well-qualified group to give advice to potential public servants. Joaquín was twenty-eight when he was first elected to the Texas House of Representatives, Julián was 26 when he was first elected to the San Antonio City Council, and Saldaña joined the city council at the young age of 24.
Most of the Facebook Live participants wrote that they found the informal conversation to be refreshing and genuinely helpful. The advice that was offered could feasibly be used by young leaders on both sides of the political aisle. It was certainly intriguing to see politicians with the national profile of the Castro brothers engage in this form of community outreach.
I picked some of the most useful quotes from their Facebook Live session and compiled them below. Some of the quotes are slightly edited for clarity. If you have not watched the 37 minute conversation, it is well worth your time.
How do I get started?
Julián: “I was still in law school in 1999 when I started thinking about running and what I did was I went to the people who orbited around that office. I was going to run for city council, so it was neighborhood association presidents, it was folks among the unions that represented city employees, it was folks in the development community that were building so they went through the zoning process and the planning process. All of those folks that orbit around that office and then veer outside of that. [Talk to] the people that are not that involved, just so you understand fully what the every day constituent in your area wants and what they think. And then people that have no dog in the fight. They are a neighbor, they are a constituent. That is very valuable, both of those perspectives.”
Joaquín: “Most people who start out in public service start out running for school board, or city council, or the state legislature.”
Saldaña: “You need to get into it because you want to be serving people. If it’s about seeing your name in the newspaper or seeing yourself on TV then you are not going in for the right reasons.”
How do I raise money and how much do I need?
Julián: “Oftentimes in our minds the amount of money that you need to run for office gets skewed. Because we always pay attention to the presidential races, or senatorial races, or gubernatorial races where they’re spending millions of millions of dollars, but [Ray Saldaña’s campaign] felt like they only needed to spend $40,000 on their race for city council. If you’re running for school board, or state representative, it’s probably about the same thing. I remember when I ran in 2001 for city council, we raised about $42,000.”
Joaquín: “We don’t want people to get discouraged by this idea that you’re going to have to raise enormous sums of money to be competitive. That’s just not the case. Especially if you’re running for a seat that involves a lot of retail politics, so to speak, where what matters most is that you get out and knock on people’s doors and talk to people face to face and ask them for their support.”
Saldaña: “Sometimes you don’t want to run because you think the incumbent, or somebody who has an edge on you, has already locked you out from half of the people who traditionally give. You can’t deny that there is an ecosystem of people who give to campaigns, so we reached out to a lot of them and they were committed to the person I was running against. We said to ourselves we don’t need to raise $40,000 all at once, but if we can raise $10,000 it makes sure people know that we are going to be a credible competitor and once you have a little success like that then you get more of these folks who are more interested.”
How do I know if the timing is right?
Julián: “There is never going to be a perfect time. There’s never going to be a time when everything just lines up perfectly. You have to understand that and folks do I think. It’s all about being able to prioritize and be realistic. Do you have enough time to make the commitment to what ever the public office is that you are seeking and the time commitment that it is going to take? Sometimes the honest realistic answer is no, but other times it is yes. It does require time sacrifices, no doubt, and sometimes those are hard choices.”
Joaquín: “Some seats are tougher to go after than others for people who are working day to day, for folks that have families, but we believe that it is still possible. People shouldn’t feel like they can’t do it.”
Saldaña: “The toughest part about running a campaign is making the decision to run.”
Will politics require me to compromise my integrity?
Julián: “Can you really do it with integrity or do you have to sell your soul and make so many compromises? What I found is sure sometimes you need to make compromises, but those compromises are about the edges of policy. You don’t have to compromise your fundamental values and beliefs. You can succeed at politics and not give up who you are and not sell your soul.”
Joaquín: “I go to the Congress, now in my third term, and we [the Democrats] are in the deep minority there. So, everything I have been able to get done has all been with the cooperation of people from the majority party. The long and short of it is you can still very much believe what you believe and hold true to your values, and still work with people on the other side.”
Saldaña: “The advice I got pretty early was that the most comfortable pillow you can sleep on at night is a clean conscience. And so, at the end of the day, you’re not going to continue to be a councilman for the rest of your life, you’re not going to continue to be an elected official. You’ll have to come to grips with every decision you’ve made and as long as you’re not leaving your office with regrets…at the end of the day, you have to be comfortable with your decisions and leaving public office in that way is the best gift you can give yourself for peace of mind.”
“Most [campaigns] are contested in a civilized way that people can be proud of.”
How do I deal with internet trolls?
Julián: “I would say probably between 75 and 90 percent of the people who call you, or Facebook you, or tweet you, and are nasty or mean or very negative, if you actually engage them in a conversation, number one, most of the time they say how much they appreciate that you reached out because they didn’t even think that you would bother to respond. Secondly, they actually calm down, most of them, and folks go into a different mode and you can engage them in a rational conversation about whatever the issue is.”
Joaquín: “The more anonymous people can be, usually the nastier they’ll tend to be. People are a lot kinder I think either in person or over the phone. I’ve gotten, for example, emails sometimes from constituents who will email me very upset…but then I make a point to call them and when you get people on the phone they tend to be a lot nicer.”
Saldaña: “You always recall that first time somebody comments something about an article that was written or sends something directly to you that affects you, and then you learn to cope. I think for me, the idea is waiting 24 hours before I ever respond to any negative criticism.”
What if I think politics are too negative for me?
Julián: “There are things that can get to you if you let it. So it’s very understandable for folks to think “why do I want any part of that?” I’ll just say that it is not nearly as bad as it might seem…The truth is most political campaigns and races are not that high profile and they don’t get nearly as nasty as presidential elections. More of them are contested in a civilized way that people can be proud of. That’s not always true, but by and large it’s not anything like what you see on the presidential level.”
Joaquín: “If people who are of good conscience and good intention who want to stand by their values, if they take themselves out of consideration for public office, then you’re going to be left with a lot of people who are really willing to compromise themselves.”
Saldaña: “People are emotional on Facebook and social media, but when it comes to [the local level] you see them face to face and it’s never that gross of an interaction or aggressive.”