Editor’s note: Updated 2/28/19 to reflect the fact that Quentin Miller and Sheneika Smith, who were originally slated to participate in informational forum were replaced on the schedule by Beverly Miller, the sheriff’s campaign manager.
What does it take to run for office? “Heart, smarts, commitment, financial stability, values, skills and a big courage button — especially if you are going to run as a conservative in Asheville,” says Carl Mumpower, former Asheville City Council member and current chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party.
Mumpower’s Democratic Party counterpart, Jeff Rose, says it all comes down to why someone is interested in holding office. “You need to be able to answer the question of why you’re running, not just talk about what you will do if elected,” Rose says. Comfort speaking to groups and an ability to connect with voters’ concerns, along with sufficient time, energy and support for a campaign, round out Rose’s list of key requirements for potential candidates.
Politicos of all stripes have begun gearing up for a 2020 election that looks to be a broad moment of opportunity. In Asheville, ballots will include offices from president on down to City Council member.
Two Buncombe Democrats, Aaron Sarver and Leila Barazandeh, are organizing an informational forum for potential candidates and supporters. Held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28, at THE BLOCK off biltmore, the event will feature a discussion about “wanting to run or being a campaign staffer of some kind and helping or supporting those kinds of candidates that traditionally just don’t run,” says Barazandeh.
On the event’s Facebook page, organizers express the hope the gathering “will encourage folks — especially those who are younger, LGBTQ+, women or [people of color] — who are considering running for elected office to take the next step.”
White man’s game?
In 2018, 127 women were elected to Congress, more than ever before.
But North Carolina saw a different picture. According to a report on the 2018 Status of Women in North Carolina Politics released by Meredith College, the percentage of women candidates in 2018 versus 2014 was lower. That’s despite the fact that women number 3.7 million of the state’s 6.83 million registered voters and have turned out to vote in higher numbers than men in every election since 1980 except 2010. Additionally, “the rural parts of the state, which have been particularly less represented by women in elected office, have lost ground.” The number of elected Republican women in the state, however, has increased.
The demographics of Western North Carolina’s elected officials didn’t shift much in 2018. Here’s the score for women holding state and federal seats representing North Carolina’s westernmost 21 counties: one of three U.S representatives, two of six state senators and two of 13 state representatives. All are white, and only one is under 40. In Buncombe, Henderson, Transylvania, Haywood, Jackson and Madison counties together, six out of 33 county commissioners are women, and only one is nonwhite, Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides.
While candidates from historically underrepresented groups have tended to fare better in Asheville than in other parts of WNC, Sarver cautions against making generalizations. Speaking of the 2018 election of Quentin Miller as Buncombe County’s first African-American sheriff, Sarver notes that “individual qualifications matter” and that Democratic operatives didn’t throw a dart at a list of black candidates to pick Miller.
Similarly, while much was made of Jasmine Beach-Ferrara’s election as Buncombe’s first openly gay commissioner, her run didn’t focus on her sexual identity, Sarver says. He points to Beach-Ferrara’s large network — developed through campaign work, spiritual leadership and her executive role with the Campaign for Southern Equality — as keys to her success as a candidate.
What you know
While progressives are the driving force behind the event at THE BLOCK, they aren’t the only political activists looking for new candidates and new kinds of candidates.
Columbus resident Jake Johnson took office as a member of the Polk County Board of Commissioners two years ago at the tender age of 22.
In January, Johnson visited Mills River to speak about getting younger people into conservative politics at a gathering convened by the Asheville Tea Party.
“The accessibility of current elected officials and party leaders is key,” Johnson says. “When I was first thinking about running, I spent a lot of time talking to people who had done it before. They are the ones who know the challenges you will face and can help you best prepare yourself.”
For Barazandeh, who is president of the Buncombe County Young Democrats (those under 36), seeing young adults run for office evokes mixed emotions. While she says there aren’t enough 20- and 30-somethings in politics, she wants those who throw their hats in the ring to know what they are getting into. “I feel like they need a lot more help, especially when it comes to finances and public relations,” she says. “It’s really great when they get that training, so that when they do run, they run to the best of their ability.”
That’s the idea behind the forum, says Sarver. “We hope something like this will help you understand and get the training, so that you don’t make a lot of the mistakes that every first-time candidate almost always makes.”
The public discussion can help hopefuls prioritize their first steps. While many advisers urge candidates to focus on raising money right off the bat, for example, “Actually, I think the first thing you need to talk about is, if you have a family, if you have a partner or a spouse or kids or your family network, make sure they’re good with it, because it’s going to be a lot of stress and pressure on them,” Sarver says.
Johnson agrees. “Make sure that you have the support of those closest to you, like friends and family. It may be your name on the ballot, but it is something that will affect them as well, and it is always [best] to make sure they are on board with what you are doing.”
Who you know
“It helps to have ties to the community, whether through family, schools, professionally or volunteer work,” Rose counsels. When scouting for candidates, he often talks with elected officials and former candidates to identify people in their networks who might be considering a run. “Especially looking ahead to some of the down-ballot races, we try to contact people who work in related fields or who have experience in local nonprofits doing work related to the position,” he says.
Johnson takes a similar approach when looking for people who might make good candidates. “I always think of people who have a natural built-in network. Many times, in the beginning, campaigns are about building your base. If someone has a strong built-in network through their career, friends or family, that makes it much easier.”
Mumpower, meanwhile, notes, “It’s a more informal process than imagined. Good candidates come mostly through relationships where potentials are noted and passed on to party officers to explore.”
Putting in some elbow grease for current candidates can build credibility for future runs. “Candidate recruitment is something we always have on our minds. Even in the midst of an election, we find downtime to talk with volunteers, campaign staff, activists or others about any future thoughts about running for office,” says Rose.
“What we know, both anecdotally and from tons of research is, if you’re a 50-year-old-guy who’s high-income, high-education, well-known in the community, you probably don’t need this training,” says Sarver. “You’ve got networks and you’ve got connections. You’re probably already being asked to run, in fact.”
Sarver, who was elected Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor in 2018, says he sometimes gets asked to shoot the moon by challenging Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Transylvania, in 2020. While he says he’s not interested, still, “I’m going to get recruited; that 50-year-old person who’s got all those traditional attributes, they’re proactively going to get recruited. That’s how politics works.”
The thinking behind the new-candidate focus of the forum, he says, is not to exclude statistically typical candidates, but to acknowledge that it’s less likely for someone like Beach-Ferrara or Miller to be asked to run, regardless of qualifications.
Home is where you run
Discussing voters’ response to his campaigns and those of other younger candidates who have found success, Johnson observes, “I think at first [our ages] might have made some people nervous. It would anybody, but after they sat down with us and heard our long-term plan … I think it actually made them feel good like, ‘These aren’t some people coming in. They’re actually for the long haul. They’re here as an investment in the community.’”
To run successfully, Johnson continues, “You have to fit the district.” That means identifying the personality of the specific electorate and knowing what’s important to them.
In districts that aren’t solidly Democratic or Republican, political activists explain, it’s not as simple as running more or less progressive candidates. Rather, “It’s about finding candidates who can connect with issues that are impacting people’s lives,” says Rose. “We’ve seen Democratic candidates in other parts of the state and country win or come very close in traditionally Republican districts while running on progressive platforms, but the way they deliver the message is different, or who they are as a candidate makes the message resonate more deeply with voters. Our candidates in those districts need to be able to connect on an issue level with the realities of those districts, and that will take a lot of listening to and talking to voters.”
Pointing to the success of some nonwhite local candidates, Sarver acknowledges that Asheville has proven itself more open to a variety of identities than many other communities. Still, many barriers remain, he says. At the General Assembly level, for example, many of those who run are legacy candidates with an elected official parent, Sarver posits.
Financial realities also deter many who would otherwise be good candidates, especially considering Buncombe County’s high cost of living, says Rose.
The Meredith College report confirms his view, explaining, “Women still bear most of the child and senior care responsibilities in society, making it difficult to find the time to squeeze public service into their busy lives. Also, because women tend to find professional success somewhat later in their lives, and relatively few political positions in the state pay a full-time salary, the economic realities of running and serving are real.”
Another issue, according to the report, is women’s self-image. “Even highly qualified women often do not see themselves as [being as] suitable for office as even less-qualified men. This self-perception, coupled with the research finding that women are encouraged to run for office about 40 percent less frequently than equally qualified men — by elected officeholders, party officials, friends, and family members — illustrates another reason why women across the nation and in North Carolina are outnumbered on the ballot by a 3-to-1 margin.”
From Mumpower’s perspective, the biggest obstacle for Buncombe County’s embattled Republicans is, well, Democrats. “We are competing against an opposition party whose platform is devoted to: 1. the promise of something for nothing; 2. anything-goes morality; and 3. opportunity without skin in the game. The Republican position involves more accountability and thus is less attractive to most voters,” he says. “Though there are 46,000 [Republicans] in Buncombe County, very few are willing to take on the responsibilities of preparing for public service and then running in a hostile environment. We are constantly looking, encouraging and engaging with potential candidates. It is a needle-in-the-haystack endeavor and requires similar dedication.”
Rose also says facing strong opposition can pose an emotional strain. “Unfortunately, running for office has become very personal, and choosing to put yourself and your family out there in front of negative attacks is difficult for some people,” he says.
Even for those with thick skin, the lifestyle of a politician is demanding. “Campaigns are extremely time-consuming,” notes Johnson, “and a lot of people who would be great candidates have full-time careers and/or family at home. That makes it tough for them to run or serve in a public office.”
And then there’s the challenge of raising money. Johnson observes that Republicans tend to consolidate money at the top of the ticket and hope for a coattail effect to carry local elections, making it tougher for small-town Republicans to raise money. Democrats, he suggests, take the opposite approach. “They’ve started putting a lot of money into local races and picking off seats that have historically been Republican.”
While the Democratic-style strategy can help newer candidates get their foot in the door for higher office, it’s an expensive proposition. Johnson also sees biased media coverage as a challenge. “That requires a lot of hard work at the grassroots level to overcome in some of the larger campaigns,” he says. “I really think the future is: Let’s start from the bottom and build a good local base and work our way up.”
Taking the plunge
Across the political spectrum, party organizers say they want to support first-time candidates. Both Rose and Mumpower encourage anyone considering running to reach out to them for help.
For young people and others who wonder whether they check the necessary boxes to run for office, Sarver recommends meeting with others who’ve been down the road a time or two. The forum, he says, will be a place to make those connections and ask questions like, “Am I too young?” “Do I have enough qualifications?” “Will I be taken seriously?” “Can I win?”
“If you’re passionate about running and you think, policy wise, you can make a difference, I don’t care if you can win or not,” says Sarver. “I don’t even think that’s the big question you should be asking yourself if you are running at the level of City Council or even county commission. Do it.”