Running for office not for the faint of heart

by James O'Connor - May 18, 2018

So why do people seek public office? Why does someone want to step up and run for school trustee, city councillor or mayor? Or MLA or MP?

Are they driven by a particular ideology or agenda? Do they truly want to try and make their lives and those of their neighbours better? Or are they simply filled to the brim with insatiable ego?

I’d say for many, it’s a bit from column A and a bit from column B.

And for myself, when I threw my hat in the ring to run for city council a few years ago and many miles away from here, it was also a chance for a bit of redemption. And I really needed a job.

I was on my second hiatus from journalism. The first came in the late-1990s, when I left the Winnipeg Sun to work as a press secretary to the cabinet of Premier Gary Filmon in Winnipeg for a couple of years.

Columnist James O’Connor walks past his official campaign vehicle in central Brandon, Man., going door-to-door trying to find people to engage about the municipal election. If nobody was home, a brochure would be left in their mailbox, often joining those of his political rivals who had been there previously.

The second break from my life’s calling came involuntarily in 2014, when I became a statistic — I was one of those newspaper employees at legacy outlets in southern Canada who were a victim of declining revenues.

So after being laid-off, I gathered my life around me and decided to run for city council. I had been expounding my views on politics for a decade while at the helm of the Brandon Sun. I was well-connected. I was very knowledgeable on the issues. And I needed to grab back a bit of the limelight and power that had been taken from me.

Glory is fleeting and I was a bully without a pulpit.

So I started consulting with my friends in office, and started pressing folks with deep pockets to make a donation to my campaign.

Yup, even at the municipal level, running for office costs cold hard cash. Money for brochures, lawn signs, ‘Sorry I missed you’ door hangers, a good headshot by a professional photographer, ad buys and gasoline.

I saved some money as I could design my own brochures and newspaper ads, but I still had to come up with $1,500 for the commercial print shop.

I also needed some help. So I pressed my girlfriend at the time into service as my campaign assistant. So when she wasn’t at her job as a hostess at a country music bar, she was helping me pound in signs on boulevards at night and going door-to-door looking for people to engage about the issues, or at bare minimum, hand a brochure to. She was often with me when I met with seniors in care homes, and when I went to every public event for weeks on end that involved more than a handful of people. Press the flesh, smile, ask for their vote. Repeat.

Doing media interviews was a very strange experience. During my time as managing editor of the paper, I had been on radio many times, offering my views on Brandon politics on local stations and regionally on CBC.

But being interviewed for that same paper by a reporter who I had hired and mentored was a bit of a mind-bender.

So did I win? Well I’m here, aren’t I? So no.

In the minds of the pundits in that town, I was the front-runner. But here’s the rub: Brandon has a ward system. That means the city of 40,000 was carved into 10 sections and you ran in the ward you felt you could best serve. That often meant the one you lived in.

And it often meant deciding if you could beat the incumbent in that ward, if there was one.

While I lived in the house I owned in the neighboring University Ward, I ran in the downtown Rosser Ward, where I had worked for so many years – and whose decline had been the subject of many of my columns.

Though party politics didn’t exist in the council chamber, it was clear what political stripe each candidate wore.

I was right wing. Rosser Ward had veered left for decades. But the incumbent was weak and I also wanted to do some good for the slowly rotting core of the city.

The winner was a member of the NDP, who had the existing provincial resources of that party — and those of the local Green Party — who just outflanked me.

Losing was a crushing blow. A public humiliation. Yuck.

A learning experience? Yeah. I should’ve run in the ward I lived in, but the incumbent there was a friend. And a Tory.

In the weeks following my loss, I did some more soul-searching and I came to the realization that it was likely time for me to leave Manitoba’s second largest city.

And to return to journalism. Here. And for you.

So as we head into election season in Yellowknife, I can write about the municipal election with some informed authority.

While the structure is a bit different up here — there are no wards, councillors each represent the entire city — the thought process for candidates is the same.

I admire anyone who decides to run for public office. It takes a lot of guts.

You’re going to be tested, both on the doorsteps and in the media. You’ll have to answer some tough questions and be on your best behaviour for weeks — months for some who have already announced — and then face the music on election night this October.

Good luck to all. You’ll need it.