IIt is a long drawn out coffee meeting in Saratoga’s quaint downtown and our spirited discussion on politics is getting hotter than my steaming mocha. But despite the rather acrid debate, I am feeling rather optimistic. At the end of the day, my buddy Richard and I have a lot in common—we are passionate about working for the Saratoga community, we have served together on many committees, and share a common ideology. I am convinced that he will endorse my candidacy for Saratoga city council.
As I broach the topic with that sense of self-assurance, I see Richard look away, avoiding eye contact. “Uhhh … You know Rishi, not right now. I’ll wait.” I am taken aback, speechless for a few seconds, but then the dismay gives way to a sense of acceptance. It’s about time I learned to expect the unexpected. After all I had signed up for the roller coaster ride of a lifetime!
I am honored and delighted that I eventually landed a seat on the Saratoga City Council. It was a rather intense race. Let’s just say that for a “volunteer” role in the city government—the council elections created some pretty tumultuous ripples in the otherwise sleepy town of 30,000 people. I see it as citizen engagement at its finest.
As an Indian-American in the Silicon Valley, let’s face it, we are more likely to churn out start-ups than run for office. To some extent, we are still “outsiders” trying to assimilate and understand our new world, and our community profile does get dissected and analyzed a bit more in close-knit voter communities
So how did I run a campaign that beat the odds and shattered stereotypes and got me to the finish line?
An average voter spends 15 seconds making a decision and you want your name to be instantly recognizable. Announce early, line up your affiliations, support groups and endorsements. Your endorsements are driven primarily by your involvement in the community. Retrace your connections, community engagements and line up meetings with respected community leaders and board members of key organizations. Seek their mentorship and endorsements and referrals for other endorsements. Endorsements lend credibility to your work. You will not win all the endorsements you think you deserve. Make sure that the ones you do get are prominently displayed on your promotional flyers and website. It is likely that you may be lining up endorsements all the way to the finals week to fine tune a campaign message or that final piece of mailer. Stay on your toes, listen, react, and adapt.
Targeting the Right Base
President Obama’s campaign team redefined the process with a data-driven approach. First, find out who the people are who are likely to vote for you. Fine tune your target group, and then like Arjun just aim for the parrot’s eye. Know your voter base. This will finesse the message and help build your elevator pitch for campaigning. Once your base is identified, pool your base and affiliations together as targets for your fundraising effort. In my case, when I had done this, funds came pouring in.
Do you think it was time to push that “Easy” button? I wish! If I had been cruising along on Ocean Drive before, I had to fasten my seatbelt soon.
A few weeks since that meeting with Richard, I was checking out the Friday morning local newspaper’s letter section. I noticed that Richard had written a letter endorsing another candidate and also embedded a nice zinger on my candidacy in that letter. I barely dwelled on it as I resumed planning for the weekend’s campaigning efforts.
When it comes to field campaigning and outreach, a great campaign manager is a fantastic start. I was able to find my Krishna—the guide who led the Pandavas to victory. My campaign manager was absolutely key for my win. I realized I had to trust the experts and follow their wisdom—I could not possibly do it all.
Successful campaigns have a marketing team that drives the mechanism of outreach. Door to door campaigning, neighborhood Meet-and-Greets, campaign flyers, Facebook ads/posts all work in their own way. Pick multiple outreach approaches to get your message to your target voter base. To execute you need a passionate volunteer base, the more the merrier. The old school approach of going door to door and meeting voters still rocks!
I got out there, knocked on doors and met the voters. I engaged in active dialogs, tried to understand their angst and how I could help. I had to reach out to this base repeatedly to ensure they cast their vote. I set my mantra to campaigning hard, staying focused on the campaign charter, letting the darts fly by, and building an outreach model all the way till 7:45pm on election night.
The swearing-in ceremony just concluded. It is official, I am now a council member of Saratoga. It is still settling in. There is a sense calmness after a whirlwind campaign. I am out in the lobby, meeting folks, thanking our stellar volunteers, the endorsers, and acknowledging the congratulations. Through the corner of my eye I see Richard waiting as I wrap up a conversation. Richard walks over and warmly offers his congratulations. I smile warmly too and we have our usual friendly banter. Richard walks away exclaiming with enthusiasm, “I would love to be involved, let me know how I can help.” I turn to my campaign manager and whisper, “Remember the hit piece? This was the guy.” He smiles and gestures with a hand wave—time to move on. Yes, we move on. Let bygones be bygones, time to do some more good for my community now!
Rishi Kumar is the founder of the Bay Area Indian American Democratic Club whose charter is to further the interests and values of Indian Americans, work towards political empowerment and advance ethical standards in the political system. He is a member of the Saratoga City Council.