“Hi! My name is Mike Stein, and I’m running for county commissioner. If I could have just a few minutes of your time, I’d like to tell you more about how I plan to improve our county.” I said this phrase dozens of times while walking around my neighborhood knocking on complete strangers’ doors asking for their vote. I never imagined that I would run for county commissioner, or any public office for that matter.
I ran for public office in a community in which I’m not a native and against someone twenty years my elder who had lived here his whole life. On top of that, he had been elected to the county commission and to the school board some time ago when he was closer to my age. Even more daunting is the fact that I had never run a political campaign before and I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even know that I had to set up a separate bank account for my campaign (though it makes complete sense).
Self doubt crept in more times than I could count during the four-and-a-half months that I ran for county commissioner. I attended the monthly commission meetings, trying to learn more about what’s going on, all the while wondering if I was the right person for the job. What did I know about operating a county budget? About the terms of bonds and the legal ramifications of how all of that works. If charged with finding waste in the budget to make the citizens’ tax dollars more efficient, how would I go about doing that, exactly? I also wondered if the dozens of hours I spent walking door-to-door, after exhausting days trying to inspire my students to learn, was worth it. Most importantly, was it worth the time away from my family?
The easy thing to do would have been nothing--to just go about my life and let my opponent win in a landslide. But I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t stay home and not try. I was setting a good example for my two daughters, twelve and seven, about getting involved in the democratic process and about solving problems for yourself. Both my mom and mother-in-law (both retired and drawing social security) donated to my campaign. I felt an incredible sense of obligation to not let them down. On top of that, there was my wife, who supported me throughout the process by being so understanding when my schedule suddenly got busier and by even designing my yard signs. I didn’t want to let her down either and whenever doubt crept into my mind I thought about my family. They unknowingly kept me going on those long days when I was tired of walking around knocking on doors, and when I was trying to squeeze campaign events into my already hectic schedule.
My sense of encouragement grew the longer that I put myself out there and talked to people. I shared with them my vision for our county. I studied the minutes from previous commission meetings and, by virtue of me running for public office, some of the community’s leaders sought me out and talked to me about their views of some of the county’s problems and how to best solve them. I transformed from a somewhat knowledgeable citizen to having just enough information to be dangerous. I made some amazing connections in the community that I can and will utilize in the future. Most importantly, as my self-confidence grew, I went from being a teacher leader to a leader who is a teacher. I could envision myself as one of the twenty-one members of the county commission, and I could see my name on the tv monitors where the county commissioners’ votes are displayed.
Election day came quickly on Tuesday, May 1st. I was out of town the weekend before the primary election attending the Teach to Lead Conference about 45 minutes away. This conference had about two hundred of the most dynamic and well-connected educators from across the country all assembled in the same place tasked with solving some of the country’s most pressing educational problems. My group, which included four other educators from across Tennessee who were all connected with the teacher fellowship Hope Street Group, worked on how to get in-state tuition for Dreamers. Many other states have already passed this initiative, but it hasn’t yet happened in Tennessee. We spent the better part of two days picking apart the specifics of the problem and developing an action plan. Spending the weekend at Teach to Lead was time well spent. Hopefully, we can help Dreamers provide for themselves and their families by continuing their education. It’s the right thing to do.
Sometimes doing the right thing can also be the wrong thing. The night before election day, I decided on a whim to take off from school and sit out at the polling location. My opponent posted on Facebook that we was going to sit out there, and I felt a sudden yearning to keep him company. It was a warm, windy day. My arms and legs got sunburned despite me setting up a tent. The voter turnout was quite low that day, but we didn’t know what early voting looked like. At 7pm the polls closed. I went home and listened to the local radio station for the results. I was outwardly very calm, but it seemingly took forever for the results to come in. The early voting numbers were released first, and I was only down by two votes! Then, about 30 minutes later, the rest of the votes were announced. I had lost by fourteen votes, 45-59. I wasn’t devastated in the least. I was invigorated. Perhaps if I had campaigned that weekend it would have made a difference, but I was working to help a special population that needs my help. If that caused me to lose the election, then I’m perfectly okay with that. The fact remained that without any last-minute campaigning, I still almost won.
Perhaps that’s an overly optimistic way to view what happened, but I don’t know how else to look at it. I heard from many community leaders in the days following the election who felt badly that I had lost and encouraged me to run again in the future. Several of them told me that I would have been a great county commissioner. Not only did I believe in myself, but other people believed in me, too. It was heartwarming and encouraging.
I had enjoyed running for office and I definitely won’t rule out doing it again in the future. I wrote my own campaign commercials for the radio, recorded different ones for Facebook, and got over the awkwardness of knocking on people’s doors asking them to vote for me. I have a better idea now of how to run a campaign, including the time and dedication that it takes. I got my name out there, and, should I run for something again, it will hopefully be a little easier for me to win. I’m glad I decided to run for county commissioner, and I hope that other educators are encouraged by my story and decide to run for public office as well. Being a great teacher is no longer about inspiring our students within the four walls of our classrooms. We’re already leaders, or we wouldn’t have signed up to do this in the first place. Running for office, or helping others who have decided to run, is merely an extension of our leadership duties. At the end of the day, people are people. Everyone is looking for the next inspirational story--the next person to come along with fresh ideas and new ways of doing things. I never thought that that person could be me, but my recent experience screams otherwise, and it could be you, too. Life is short; it’s up to us to do as much good in the world as we can while we’re here.