The trouble with running for public office is the very real possibility that you will lose the race publicly. I considered this as I declared my candidacy for my small town’s city council. But there were three seats up for grabs, and I figured there would be a good chance I might run unopposed.
When I found out five people were vying for those three city council positions, my insides twisted. This was the risky behavior I had spent a lifetime trying to avoid. I never ran for student council or tried out for cheerleader. I was popular enough, I guess, but not nearly confident enough to find out exactly how popular. I had good grades but dared not apply to universities with highly competitive admissions procedures. I further dismissed those colleges with sororities, as they seemed to pose unwelcome contests of their own.
So losing my city council race on Nov. 8 should have crushed me. But it didn’t — and for reasons I never would have imagined. The morning after the election, my phone rang non-stop. The callers did not have exuberant congratulations to offer me, but instead delivered carefully worded expressions of comfort, encouragement, even outrage. My knee-jerk reaction was self-defense.
"It’s all right," I told them. "Who in their right mind would want that job anyhow?" But their persistent sincerity throughout the day wore me down. They deserved the same sincerity from me, and soon I came to speak the truth.
"I’m glad I tried." And I was, for my sake and for theirs.
In recent years, I have voted for more losers than winners. And I’m ashamed to say it never once occurred to me to let those people know that I appreciated their willingness to try. I never thanked a candidate for being brave enough to stand up for the rest of us, to maybe even come up short in front of their neighbors, their families, their country.
But now I understand that voters have a power that goes beyond the ballot box. Representative government is a team sport, not an individual race. Voters who cared enough to broach the uncomfortable subject of defeat succeeded in reminding me that I was not alone in my loss.
To restore a candidate’s sense of purpose and dignity is no small thing. Democracy is more than a roomful of winners. Democracy depends on choices. Without opposition or dissent, the majority is free to steamroll the rest of us. I live in Idaho where the Democratic Party has no more influence than a Friday night bowling league. Republican Mike Crapo, our junior senator, was the only U.S. senate candidate in 2004 to run unopposed. In all likelihood, a Democratic challenger would have been about as well received as my own decision last Thanksgiving to serve lamb instead of turkey. Even so, the lopsided election did not provoke debate or thoughtful discussion about national issues. But it illustrated the one thing that is always worse than losing — not even trying.
I ran for Salmon city council because I think we have only a small window of time to preserve local, well-loved features, such as our Main Street downtown, which makes visitors feel like they’ve stepped back in history. But attitudes die hard here. Newcomers, especially newcomers who run for public office, are viewed with suspicion.
In November’s aftermath, my small band of supporters and I did not have the occasion for high-fives. Instead, we dusted ourselves off and tried to decide if what we believe in is worth another effort. Even with the memory of my failed campaign so fresh, I say "yes."
The idea of being publicly humiliated does not hold nearly the power over me that it once did. The private shame of choosing to be a subject rather than a citizen, hands in my pockets, would be much more troubling.
Gina Knudson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Salmon, Idaho.
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