How to Become a Player Politically when You’re not Rich

by Bill Crawford

I’ve heard two laments from the politically disaffected all my adult life. The first is “My vote doesn’t count,” which makes me wonder about why the legions of politicians and their campaigns chase after votes with so much time and treasure. The other runs along the lines of “I’ll never have the influence of a big donor,” which in the world of ever more expensive campaigning, has an element of truth. I am speaking up here as a political veteran of many campaigns in more than one state to show you how you can become a priceless commodity without giving a dime.

Choose sides

Many North Carolinians do not register in a political party – they remain independent or “Unaffiliated.” North Carolina is an open primary state and this gives one the chance to choose a party in the Primary elections, which I understand. I think that most of those who do this still lean toward one party or another and tend to vote that way. I say figure out which party you are most comfortable with and change your registration. Within a party, you will get a better chance to be a part of who ends up on the ballot from your work in Primary campaigns instead of being left with the choice of others in November. You will be much more likely to get close to, talk to and ask questions of candidates when they are still playing the small game and you can see the process from up close. You will have a better chance to ask questions and get answers – not because the candidates prefer communicating with their side (they usually want to reach everybody) – but simply because you are at smaller, more intimate gatherings.

Celebrate youth

Young people pose those laments to me more than any other group. They often have little idea how precious and valued their presence is in the political world. It is a fact of life in America that people vote more consistently as they get older, making youth the single largest political opportunity group. The presence of young people in a political gathering projects energy, enthusiasm and scares the opposition into thinking your side has an edge on recruiting a scarce commodity. Many weary political insiders will get a burst of adrenaline from the chance of teaching the trade to a fresh, new face. Opportunities will abound for a hardworking youth.

Be polite and dress well

First and foremost, politics is all about dealing with people – sometimes on the phone, more often in person. Patience, politeness, a smile and eye contact will allow you to do many things for a party or a candidate. This can’t be taught, you either have it or you don’t. Everything else can be learned. Dressing business casual will get you into more visible places. When I was a young man, I would often show up in a suit and many times I ended up being a candidate’s personal escort (in New York parlance, a “button man”) and work directly with them through an event.

Show some endurance

The work of politics seems to go on forever at times and those who can keep up are often more valuable than those who can’t. If you are making phone calls and you keep at it until the end of the list, you are golden. If you can work a shift at a polling place and remain in place for hours at a stretch, political people will start asking for you when you aren’t around.

Be flexible and make commitments

Politics and campaigns do not run on a train schedule. Things pop up out of nowhere and are rescheduled. Moving with this makes you more valuable. It isn’t expected that you turn over your free time to them – they all know people have lives. But if you can plan two or three weeks ahead, can commit to half a dozen short blocks of time and then show up as promised, this will make you more valuable to the people running the show.

Always be positive

One of my most important lessons from my early days in this game is to always fight for what you want – fighting against something often just reaches the people that agree with you. Don’t wear angry lapel pins and don’t have snarky bumper stickers on your car. It turns off the truly undecided voters, the fruit on the vine that every politician is trying to pick. Ignore people who normally would get you riled up. Smile. You’re a salesman now. Learn how to live this and you are priceless in the political world.

Try and free up as much time as you can in September and October

Political campaigns pick up speed gradually. Early in the year, it sometimes feels like everybody is on vacation. It picks up speed in late summer and then goes into hyperdrive the last two months. If you’ve never seen it before, it will make you dizzy if you don’t watch out. Being available for larger blocks of time during these final months will make you more valuable than anything else I’ve talked about here. There are never enough people to do what needs to get done and speaking up during those times and asking for more will get you a better reaction than even dropping a large donation check.

I’m not pretending any of this is easy or not time consuming. But by the time you get through it, you will have disabused yourself of any thoughts of how you don’t count for anything in politics. You will be priceless. And we will all be better for it.

Bill Crawford is a member of the Chatham GOP Executive Committee and a former candidate for office in Chatham County and Pittsboro