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Top Ten Lessons Learned from Running for Office and LOSING!

By: Rachel Michelin, Executive Director/CEO, California Women Lead

On June 3, 2008, across the state, women ran for office at the local, state and national levels. I was one of those local candidates. I threw my hat in the ring and ran for a seat on the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors. While I did not make the run off, I did learn a number of valuable, “first time candidate” lessons that I would like to share.

  1.  You do have what it takes to run! I can still remember my first candidate’s forum – I was terrified even though public speaking was something I did all the time. Once I got started though, and realized I knew just as much as the other candidates, I was hooked. LESSON LEARNED: BE YOURSELF, PEOPLE WILL LIKE YOU!
  2.  Don’t take it personally. When I started my quest for elected office, there was a woman who said she would endorse, support, and mentor me. Her support was a huge factor in my decision to run. Then, on the day filing closed, she called me to say she was rescinding her endorsement and staying out of the race. Part of the reason was that some of her supporters didn’t want her endorsing a “newcomer” – they wanted her to support someone from the “old boys club.” I was shocked and hurt, but realized this sometimes happens in politics. LESSON LEARNED: YOU CAN’T TAKE EVERYTHING PERSONALLY.
  3.  Money is important, but it’s not everything. Fundraising is difficult; when you decide to run for office it will consume you. You’ll feel like you never have enough and you’ll always be wondering about how much your opponents have. I had one opponent whose family loaned him more than $150,000 for his race. He spent $100,000 of it and still didn’t make the run off, so don’t let a self-funded opponent intimidate you. I was so encouraged and touched by all of the support I received – especially from women. Every check, large or small, felt like a vote of confidence. LESSON LEARNED: USE YOUR MONEY WISELY AND THE MOST FUNDED CANDIDATE DOESN’T ALWAYS WIN!
  4.  There are things in an election that are out of your control. I had a highly contested congressional primary overlapping my campaign. Would it affect the outcome in terms of who voted? Yes! Could I control it? No! We walked the neighborhoods, we phoned constituents, we did everything we could – knowing we couldn’t control one of the biggest factors in the race. LESSON LEARNED: KEEP FOCUSED ON YOUR RACE AND DON’T GET DISTRACTED BY THINGS YOU CAN’T CONTROL.
  5.  Win or lose, life goes on after the election! I ran a great campaign, but I lost. I raised plenty of money and got most of the major endorsements, but that was not enough. You can play Monday morning quarterback and continue wondering “what if,” or you can move forward, pat yourself on the back, and be proud of your race. As one of my supporters told me, “At least you were in the game!” LESSON LEARNED: THE MINUTE YOU THROW YOUR HAT IN THE RING YOU ARE A WINNER, IT TAKES RISK AND CONFIDENCE TO EVEN BE PART OF THE GAME.
  6.  Friends and family are important! I had so many friends whose support meant so much to me. Whether it was writing a check, walking precincts, stuffing envelopes or just calling to check in, it all helped. But my biggest supporters were my husband and daughter – I would not have gotten through the campaign without them. The most rewarding part of the campaign was the effect it had on my daughter. One day in the car she told me, “Mommy, I am going to be a candidate one day. Will you vote for me?” Right then I knew I had already won, regardless of the election outcome. LESSON LEARNED: WHEN YOU DEICIDE TO RUN YOU BECOME A ROLE MODEL AND LEADER TO OTHERS IN YOUR COMMUNITY – MAKE SURE YOU TAKE THAT RESPONSIBILITY SERIOUSLY.
  7.  The personal touch helps. Win or lose, it pays to be gracious. I always sent personal thank you notes to the people who helped me along the way and was always gracious to my opponents. The way you treat other people speaks volumes about your character. People notice. While you may not win now, you never know what the future holds and having a great attitude can open doors and opportunities when you least expect it.  LESSON LEARNED: FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER TIP O’NEIL HAD IT RIGHT “ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL” AND YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOU WILL RUN AGAIN!
  8.  You’ll experience the highest highs and the lowest lows. One of my friends warned me of this when I first decided to run. He was right. Enjoy the high moments – savor the little victories when you get that big check or special endorsement. When the low points come (and they will), don’t dwell on them. Just enjoy the ride!  LESSON LEARNED: BEING A CANDIDATE, IF YOU HAVE THE RIGHT ATTITUDE, CAN BE ONE OF THE MOST REWARDING THINGS YOU DO – WIN OR LOSE!
  9.  Sometimes losing opens up doors. Most people respect the courage and commitment it takes to run for office. As a candidate, willing to put yourself out there in the name of public service, you become part of an elite group. Be proud and keep your head up high. The day after the election, my phone was ringing off the hook with offers from people who wanted me to run for another office, sit on a local nonprofit board, or speak at a local event about my experience. LESSON LEARNED: WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER ONE OPENS – BE READY FOR IT!
  10.  And finally… the more women who run, the more women will get elected. Although I didn’t win, I like to think of myself as a role model for future candidates. I had one woman stop me and say “If you can throw your hat into the ring, maybe one day I will too.” The only way we are going to get more women in public office is if more women are willing to run!! LESSON LEARNED: YOU CAN’T GET ELECTED IF YOU DON’T TAKE THE RISK AND RUN!

These are my “Top 10.” I would not trade the experience for anything. It gave me insight on what I can accomplish, made me realize that I have what it takes to run for office, and re-energized me to work even harder giving women the skills they need to be successful - through the trainings and encouragement offered by California Women Lead. To all of you who have ran and won – congratulations! To those of you who have ran and lost, thank you for taking a chance and being part of the process – and congratulations for just being “in the game!”