During the course of this long (and often expensive) election campaign, Capitol Report New Mexico editor Rob Nikolewski watched and listened to candidates all over the state. Often, his mind would drift, wondering, “When was the last time this person had a day off?” or “What’s going through their minds as they give these stump speeches?” Now that the election is over, Nikolewski asked Brigette Russell, who ran for the seat in the state House of Representatives in District 47 in Santa Fe, to give her impressions of what it was like to be, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, the man (or woman) in the arena.
What I Learned on the Campaign Trail
When asked to run as the Republican candidate for State House District 47 last fall, I dismissed the idea as crazy. The district was only 16% Republican, making the race a kamikaze mission. Besides, I had four small children, so how could I possibly run? Half a year later, I was in the Santa Fe County Clerk’s office filing my candidacy as my youngest daughter screamed like a banshee and her sisters traded their cooperation for Skittles from the candy machine.
Eight long and exhausting months later, I failed to unseat Rep. Brian Egolf, but I do not for a moment regret running, because I learned more and grew more during this campaign than in any comparable period of my life.
The first lesson I learned was that there is no such thing as a perfect candidate. It is easy to be an armchair general, watching a candidate stumble and thinking you could do better. I remember watching the Obama-McCain debates in 2008 and yelling at McCain about what he should have said. During my own television, radio and newspaper interviews, there were times when I realized the moment I finished speaking what I should have said instead.
The second lesson I learned is that everybody has an issue close to his heart, and God help you if you see it differently. Never mind that you agree on 99 out of 100 issues. If you dare to dissent on the one close to the voter’s heart, you’ve earned his eternal enmity. Being verbally abused by voters with whose pet issue I disagreed was unpleasant, but it made me a stronger person. I knew going into the race that I would have to grow a thicker skin, and I have. Doing so was unpleasant, but beneficial.
My third lesson was that a female candidate with children faces unique challenges. I was raised to believe I could achieve anything I wanted, provided I worked hard enough. I thought the triumph of feminism meant my motherhood was a non-isssue. And yet I cannot count the number of times women demanded to know how I thought I could serve in the legislature and take care of my children, too.
The fourth lesson I learned is that good people do run for office. Americans often ask plaintively, why don’t good people don’t run for office? It’s true that many good people don’t, because you have to do humiliating things, like ask for money. Despite my own cynical preconceptions (my first political memory was, after all, Watergate) most of the candidates I’ve come to know during this campaign are fine, decent people whom I would be honored to have represent me.
America’s pastime is not baseball, but beating up on politicians. We laugh at Mark Twain’s quote about idiots and congressmen, and we expect politicians to be corrupt. In some ways, we get what we deserve. A supporter asked me during my campaign if I was going to win. I replied that I was doing everything I could to win, but we wouldn’t know until election day. The man actually got angry, insisting I had to be positive and tell everyone I was going to win. Because I had no way of knowing whether I would, I considered that a lie. This man was probably uncertain himself whether I would win, and yet he was angry because I didn’t look him in the eye and lie to him. As long as we castigate our candidates for honesty, we will continue to get what we deserve.