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Ever Wanted to Run for Office? Perspectives from Two Recently Elected Auditors
By Jennifer McGuirk and Jenny Wong

When most auditors think about advancing through the ranks of their offices or obtaining positions of greater leadership in the auditing community, they spruce up their resume, obtain some letters of reference, and apply for open positions. However, when the open position is auditor in one of the many communities that elect their lead auditors, the job application experience is a totally different animal. As a couple of long term auditors with little to no political experience, the idea of running for office was daunting. But far from the horror show we were dreading, the experience was eye-opening, educational, and at times exhilarating.

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We both learned a lot about our communities and about the electoral process through our respective campaigns in Multnomah County, Oregon, and Berkeley, California. For anyone considering running for political office, we hope this window into our experiences will be helpful and, at the very least, serve as an example to others that running for office is not some tortuous horrible experience. Rather, it can be rewarding and lead to a great connection with your community.

Based on our experiences, here are some things to consider if you are thinking of running for office.


ENGAGE THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY: ALL VOTERS WANT COMPETENT LOCAL GOVERNMENT

City councils, commissioners, and boards of supervisors are often divided along many political lines—where and what kind of housing to build, how to approach the police department, whether tax funds should be raised for certain public purposes, and on and on. You know what one issue everyone agrees on? That the city or county services should be administered in a competent way, that tax dollars should be spent efficiently and equitably and that there should be transparency in government. It’s the auditor’s job to provide an independent check to make that happen. In this context, voters from across the political spectrum are fair game and as candidates that had been auditors for 18 (Jenny) and 6 (Jennifer) years respectively, we were able to garner widespread support.

Jenny was able to get the support from every member of the City Council and every major political club in Berkeley. Jennifer earned endorsements from unions, as well as current and former elected leaders. These endorsements translated into slate cards that were mailed to voters and were also used in the ballot pamphlet. Voters heard about Jennifer’s and Jenny’s experience from a wide range of individuals and clubs. For Jenny, this helped propel her landslide victory over an opponent with no auditing experience, and helped Jennifer win competitive primary and general elections over other audit professionals.


KNOCK ON DOORS: PEOPLE ARE NICE... REALLY!

One of the most critical yet initially terrifying aspects of running for office is knocking on doors to talk with voters. Many auditors may by nature be introverted, and even for us, the prospect of walking up to thousands of strangers’ doors, knocking on them, standing strong when dogs bark loudly, and then engaging in conversation with people about how wonderful we would be as auditors was daunting to say the least. Yet that’s just what we did and it was a surprisingly and amazingly positive experience. For Jenny, the key was having a hook to talk with people, which she did by creating a survey which served two purposes: it created a good reason to initiate a conversation with voters, and it gave her a systematic way for discerning what issues voters cared about. Most people didn’t want to fill out the survey, but many lingered for conversations when they might not have normally. All of this provided more opportunity to make a good impression and share information about her background and how she would approach the office. Often Jenny would be invited in for tea or a glass of water, someone even gave her some homemade bread, and many people took lawn signs.

But one person cannot possibly talk with enough voters in a citywide election—we needed to recruit an army of volunteers to help. The biggest challenge in doing that was simply asking. Jenny had a wide network of friends through schools, the auditing community, and involvement in religious and community organizations. Several people really stepped up and we were able to ultimately talk with thousands of voters at their doors, bank votes, identify people who would take yard signs, and spread the word about what the auditor's office does. Both Jennifer and Jenny provided a script to volunteers and targeted which doors to knock on in her county based on prior voting history.


WE RAISED MONEY TO GET OUR MESSAGES OUT

Unless you have a fair amount of personal disposable wealth and don’t live somewhere that caps what you can contribute to your own campaign, you will need to raise money. You’ll use this money to get your name and vision in front of voters at the door, through the mail, and online. Campaign pros will tell you to schedule call time (a campaign euphemism for fundraising) and make yourself stick to that schedule. This can be extremely difficult to do because asking people for money can be awkward and anxiety-inducing—even for candidates running for well-known offices. But regardless of the amount, whether it was $100 or $5, we appreciated any support because it signified an endorsement of our vision.

One challenge in asking people to support a candidate for auditor is the general public tends not to know what we do or that the office is an elected one. (This may be partly because we don’t have a tradition of competitive seats.) We found ourselves having to explain over and over again what the auditor does, and how our vision set us apart. We had to make this pitch quickly and persuasively.

Two things that we found helpful:

  • Making the ask specific, such as: Your $100 contribution will help me reach 200 people with my mailing.
  • Making the ask about a shared vision: In other words, the contribution wasn’t about the candidate, it was about a shared idea of what the auditor should do and how to make that a reality.

More than call time, Jennifer preferred fundraising at house parties. These are just what they sound like. Someone hosts a party for their friends, family, neighbors, or colleagues. When the hosts invite people, they’d let them know they would be expected to make a donation. The candidate would show up, talk about the reasons for running, and answer questions about auditing. These were fun! People were excited to learn about performance auditing. They had good ideas of things to audit. They were appreciative of the work we do. These parties were also low-stress because the host asked for the gifts—not us. And at the end of the evening, the candidate would go home with some checks and renewed energy.

A note about asking other auditors for money: we both learned quickly that other auditors, particularly staff auditors, may be unlikely to make a gift or support you publicly. After all, we have been trained to keep our opinions private and to fiercely guard our independence. Our communities are small and people may be hesitant to look like they picked one person over another. But others will surprise you and support you behind the scenes or publicly through gifts of funds, time, and counsel.


WE GOT TRAINED ON HOW TO RUN FOR OFFICE

Executing a campaign is akin to launching a startup. It can be overwhelming, and we helped make it a little easier for ourselves by getting guidance. While writing this article, we found out we are both boot camp alumni of the Emerge America affiliates in our states. Emerge America, aimed at training women to run for office, provided a deep dive into everything from writing a campaign plan to fundraising to going door-to-door. If you ever contemplate running for office, do yourself a favor and find a local training on how to run. Unions, nonpartisan organizations, and partisan ones to the left and right may offer training near you.

Just as important as the training we got through these programs were the networks we built. The people we met cheered us on and supported our campaigns. They connected us to other people who supported us. Critically, our cohorts provided a place to commiserate with people who knew what we were experiencing. This helped make campaigning bearable, especially when we encountered challenges that crossed the line of being a female candidate. One person told Jennifer to reconsider running this round because she was a mom of young children. Jenny’s opponent asked voters to support him because he was a “bulldog” and called Jenny a “cuddly kitten” without having met her. Having a supportive network of friends and family helped to quash these outdated judgments about the capabilities of women and focus on the campaign.


WE USED SOCIAL MEDIA TO BUILD MOMENTUM AND CREDIBILITY

Given all that we know about Facebook and other social media, it can be odd to think of these tools as a way to build credibility as a candidate. But we found Facebook, Twitter, and other social media provided a way to: 1) tell likely voters about something you were going to do, such as going door-to-door in a particular neighborhood, 2) ask them to do the thing with you, and 3) show them that you did the thing you said you would do. This is a really simple formula, but following it shows that you are transparent about your campaign and accountable for doing what you said you would do.

As with most other things on a campaign, it was very helpful to have a plan for social media and follow it. Having a regular posting schedule helped build and maintain momentum for our campaigns. Jennifer had days she was responsible for posting, and she had a trusty volunteer who posted on other days about pre-arranged topics, such as the county auditor’s role in reapportionment.

Even if you are on the doors regularly and reaching out consistently through social media, you can’t control how voters will take your message. You can’t control if they will vote for you. But you can control how you engage with them—if you make a plan, reassess it regularly, and follow it as closely as possible. Having this modicum of control really helped manage the stress of campaigning.

Overall, we learned a lot about ourselves and our communities through this life-changing process that ended with a great job. We learned how to distill our message into a few seconds when knocking on doors or posting on Facebook. We learned to be confident women candidates even when some were not so encouraging. We learned to listen to community concerns and will use that in our audit work. We hope this gives you a flavor of what it was like for two people who reached beyond our comfort zone and encourage you to do the same when presented with a great career opportunity.


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Jenny Wong and Jennifer McGuirk were elected as Berkeley City Auditor and Multnomah County Auditor in November 2018. Previously, Jenny was an auditor and coach at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. She also served as the Executive Director for the intergovernmental forums for 7 years. Jennifer was a Senior Performance Auditor at Multnomah County Auditor's Office prior to being elected. She is a member of ALGA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. Before becoming an auditor, Jennifer wrote and managed grants and worked in public involvement.