An array of "I voted" stickers awaits voters Juneau’s municipal election in October 2020. Residents interested in running for Assembly and Juneau Board of Education seats in this year’s election can start getting schooled with a "toolkit" and workshop scheduled this week. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

School’s in for aspiring candidates

Assembly and school board members offer wise words as toolkit and workshop for local races arrive

For Barbara ‘Wáahlaal Gíidaak Blake one of the signs of being an experienced candidate for local office is knowing she needs more signs.

The time for aspiring office seekers to get their running shoes on is fast approaching, with an annual “toolkit” for candidates and corresponding how to run for local office workshop happening this week. But longtime and relatively new Juneau Assembly and Board of Education members say that beyond the proverbial classroom there’s plenty of shoe-leather lessons they’ve gotten on the trail.

“If I did run again I would definitely do a better job of guestimation,” said Blake, a first-term Assembly member who isn’t sure yet if she will seek reelection. “I have a better idea of how many signs are needed…we ran out of signs really quick.”

Campaigning just months after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic also meant some on-the-fly lessons about trying to meet with organizers and reach out to constituents via means such as Zoom, she said. And, as with many other candidates, there were definitely lessons to be learned about money.

“I guess there’s a whole side to fundraising that was just totally unexpected for me,” she said. “We talked about it during the workshop, but the level of activity was surprising to me.”

The filing period for local candidates in the Oct. 4 municipal election is July 15-25. The Assembly will fill one seat each for areawide, District 1 and District 2, and the school board is filling two open seats.

Emil Mackey, a school board member since 2015, said his biggest practical lesson from the trail isn’t about wisdom as much as courage.

“You have to overcome your fears to knock on people’s doors,” he said. “I think the less narcissistic you are, the harder it gets to make that plea.”

But Mackey has his own lessons learned about signs.

“The thing I still hate is the sign waving on the side of the road,” he said. “When I see it when it’s not my campaign it seems contrived.”

There’s also safety concerns with some people too close to the road, plus the reality that it’s not always a fun early-fall activity in one of the rainiest cities in the U.S.

“I don’t feel like calling people asking them to stand out in the cold and rain waving a sign for me,” he said. “It feels like that should be my responsibility.”

When it comes to public events like meet-and-greets, second-term Assembly member Wade Bryson suggests a warm and sunny approach.

“Only politicians like to talk about politics,” he said. “Making it a fun event that makes it less political is the best way to go.”

Still, there’s the inevitable cloud of asking people for money because “it’s tougher to ask…than people might think,” Bryson said, adding it’s gotten easier for him over time.

Common-sense advice such as attending Assembly or school board meetings, listening to voters and becoming well-educated on local issues is an obvious foundation of so-called classroom instruction. But local candidates said there are reasons for that not immediately obvious to new office seekers.

“All the easy fixes have already been tried, so it’s important to understand why things are the way they are before you try to change them,” said Brian Holst, a school board member since 2014. He said when he goes door-to-door “I get asked what my positions are, but I find I learn much more if I ask them what issues they’re interested in.”

Alicia Hughes-Skandijs, a second-term Assembly member, said being able to discuss a wide variety of topics helps navigate the often-impromptu aspects of local campaigning.

“Two things I felt like you don’t fully appreciate until you’re campaigning,” she wrote in a text message. “One, being prepared to answer literally any question. People asked me so many off-the-wall questions that I didn’t expect to answer because they weren’t directly related to/with city stuff that had recently happened. They just might want your opinion on whatever random topic is important to them.”

Hughes-Skandijs continued: “Two, the lived experience of just how quickly a minute (or 30 seconds) can pass when attending forums. That’s something you can practice ahead of time for, but there’s nothing like the real deal first one to get you ready/teach you before the rest of the campaign.”

Lest such tales sound overwhelming, second-term Assembly member Michelle Bonnet Hale said local campaigns don’t have to be a whirlwind of tugging and advice from people in all directions.

“You can do it yourself with your own team,” she said. “You can be your campaign manager. Learn everything you can and then trust your instincts.”

The annual How To Run For Local Office workshop is scheduled Saturday at City Hall but, unlike previous years where walk-in attendees were allowed, this year’s event is limited to those who are already registered due to COVID-related concerns, said Peggy Cowan, a board member of the League of Women Voters Juneau and lead organizer of the event.

However, copies of the candidate handbook provided to workshop participants and other “toolkit” materials are scheduled to be published this week, and material from past years is available as well. Last year’s handbook included detailed information related to campaigning in the COVID-19 era and City Clerk Beth McEwen said this year’s book should be largely similar.

The workshops have been held for the past eight years, with both successful and unsuccessful candidates among the featured panelists, McEwen said. She estimates perhaps one-fourth to one-third of attendees become a local candidate at some point, with many of the other participants consisting of campaign managers and other staff helping people trying to get elected.

Virtually all of the local candidates interviewed agreed the workshops are invaluable and being able to talk to those involved in previous campaigns allows plenty of practical wisdom to be gained before hitting the trail. But many added there’s one additional key lesson to keep in mind – what’s in store if a candidate wins.

For starters, there’s fulfilling post-campaign obligations such as taking down all your signs and making sure finance reports are properly filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission – and the latter remain an ongoing and rather important duty after assuming office.

“You get a nasty letter from APOC and you say to yourself ‘l’m never to be late on my reports again,’” Mackey said.

Perhaps the biggest thing to understand in advance is what the duties of the job you’re campaigning for actually involve — such as an enormous number of public meetings and discussions with various community stakeholders.

“I think what most people need to know is the time commitment,” Bryson said. “Every time I talk to a candidate they talk about how hard it is. I’m like ‘holy cow, the campaign is the easiest thing about being a politician.’”

“You’re going to have a couple of weeks a month where you don’t have time for anything else.”

Juneau Empire reporter Mark Sabbatini can be reached at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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