…Dear 2020 candidates: Here are my Top 10 tips as a longtime political writer

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By Greg Markley
For the Opelika Observer

In 1976, I was a freshman in college and assisting a young lawyer with the campaign of a man challenging the state treasurer, who had been in office 30 years. My first day as a volunteer, the campaign manager showed me his “little red and white booklet” from 1976 and said it was the first of its kind in the state. As a political junkie, I found it fascinating.

It was an 80-page guide for everything from getting good media coverage to generating donations. Now there are many guidebooks and videos for this. So here and in next week’s Observer, I am offering a Top 10 for New Candidates. This concise lesson may bear fruit in this year’s municipal election.

Money has far less weight in council or commission races than it does even in county races. But it can definitely be a factor for an “open seat” (one without an incumbent in it). This may be due to eager candidates in the slot after the position was held by one person for 20-30 years or it might reflect that the opponent of the monied candidate has not compensated for that money by going door-to-door.

Unless it is a close and brutal election, it’s unlikely your opponent will divulge how many contributions are from outside the district, but a member of the media may find out and publicize it. That happens maybe 15 percent of the time. Hope came for all you money-strapped candidates this week. It came when Barry Moore won the Republican runoff for a congressional seat in Alabama, despite being outspent 10-1 by Jeff Coleman.

Signage. My suggestion is “Don’t waste words!” For example, Candidate A might have a sign or online representation reading “Fred Jones, candidate for District 1 councilman, August 25, 2020. He’ll Fight for You.” You may not even need the “Fred” unless your opponent is also named Jones. Even crisper would be “Jones, for Dist. 1 council, 8/25. He’ll Fight for You.” Voters don’t need a mountain of information to make a municipal-level decision.

Whether making a campaign website or a social media presence, the colors must be consistent on your platforms. For instance, say you use red and blue on your literature and signs. If someone sees that a week later, and it’s green and orange, they may be upset as they liked other colors. Above all, recoil from using subtle colors. Why? It’s hard on the eyes, and is not bold enough design-wise.

On your biography, be honest while minimizing your Achilles heel. For instance, it’s noticeable if a candidate in or near a university town does not have a university or college degree. Yet a candidate who lacks a B.A. may have created a very successful business. This candidate will spend a lot of money in the campaign. His biography will show he has many skills that universities treasure. This man or woman will do well in politics; I don’t doubt that.

For a Republican, lack of military service was a disadvantage years ago. Why? Because the GOP traditionally had the military in its base. Today that doesn’t matter, as many Republicans never served. Now Democrats also seldom have served. A FiveThirtyEight poll said only 2.7 percent of American adults have EVER served. For a new candidate, lack of military time won’t hurt. Still, veterans running in patriotic Alabama have a campaign asset most others do not.

It’s hard to keep political leanings a secret even in a “non-partisan” election. One aspect of seeking a council seat, as opposed to a commission seat with a party label attached, is that you can more easily control the directions you go in. If someone asks if you like a large government at city hall, you can say ‘No, not as far as spending too much; but we do have city projects that can overtake budgets.’ That nuanced answer may please most voters, no matter their ideologies.

That’s a good response, acknowledging budget issues. But if you ran as a Democrat or Republican, they might parse what you said and not be happy as you had a qualifying (“but”) clause. Nuance is good to learn because even though council districts may be largely one race, ethnicity or age group, remember that August elections generally have a small turnout. In Opelika, winning a council seat may take as little as 400 votes, depending on how many candidates there are.

Finally, don’t forget to check all the eligibility boxes, or else you will embarrass yourself. For example, in 1998 someone leaked to me that Rowdy Gaines did not live in Auburn the required three years to be a state senator. Gaines was rumored to be running for the position held for many years by Ted Little. Gaines was an ideal candidate: a solid Republican, highly religious, very conservative and charismatic.

Oh, and by the way, he is a former competitive swimmer at Auburn University, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, and a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. I called him and he admitted the claim was true. An exclusive for me, and a farewell to the politics dream for a decent man. Don’t forget to read part two of this series on July 29, with the Final Five tips.

Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 20 of the past 24 years. An award-winning journalist, he has Master’s degrees in education and history. He taught political science as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.

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