Mita Havlick reacts to finding out she lost the race for the DISD school board.
While listening to a candidate stump at an event, I thought: “It takes courage to step up.”
We have no shortage of people seeking elected office — and not just for the presidential race. Locally, we have nine candidates running for mayor with every Dallas City Council and Dallas ISD school board race contested.
We’ve even seen people launch their campaigns for the 2020 state House races.
As a chronic voter and one who firmly believes in a representative democracy, this is all great news.
I believe that no election should go uncontested. Only when there is a true race, conversations are had, incumbents are kept accountable and newcomers are tested. As voters, we have opportunities to attend meet-and-greets, fundraisers, candidate forums and events that enable us to shape those conversations.
But I keep coming back to the “stepping up” bit. I know from my own experience in 2016 as a Dallas ISD school board candidate (and losing in the runoff) that stepping up and into the political fray is not easy.
When newcomers ask me what it’s like to be a candidate, I tell them to be prepared. Be prepared for the onslaught — from an abundance of support from those who love you, to the criticism from those who don’t, and everything in between.
People can be at the top of their career, dedicate every day to philanthropy, be a lifelong public servant and be a respected member of the community. But once they put their name on the ballot, all bets are off. It’s time to put on armor. In my case, I recall being known as an entrenched community member who worked to improve campus leadership and actively advocated for schools throughout the district, all while volunteering at my children’s schools.
That was before I filed to run. After, I was labeled “just a PTA mom.” Two things to note about that: 1) Anyone who has ever been “just a PTA mom” knows that it’s more than hosting evening meetings and raising money. 2) The characterization discounted any of the contributions I had made.
I give the same advice to prospective candidates that a friend gave me when I ran for the school board: Put on your jacket made of thick skin and talk to your kids. Tell them that when they hear untruths about you, it’s not personal. It’s politics. I also tell them to remind their spouse of the same. No one gets more defensive than your life partner.
What is it about human nature? Why do we tend to look at political candidates with suspicion? The whole, “What’s in it for them?” angle versus, “I wonder what motivated them to run for us?”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naïve. I know there are candidates and elected officials whose primary motivation is not pure, as proven by the recent federal bribery charges against former Dallas City Council member Carolyn Davis.
My list is not short of those with whom I’ve had political disputes. But disagreeing about policy and positions is vastly different than name calling or taping letters filled with mistruths onto neighbors’ front doors. Yes, this was an actual scenario in a recent East Dallas election. I confess to not always being this compassionate toward political candidates, but you appreciate things more after you’ve experienced them.
I have sincere empathy for those who’ve lost a loved one since the death of my brother. I am more compassionate to crying babies on airplanes now that I’m a parent. And I finally get people’s obsession with their pets after adopting Monty, the most amazingly wonderful, sweet, fun, friendly, smart, cute, best dog in the world.
It’s the same with politics. I didn’t comprehend what it’s like to be in the public sphere and have darts thrown from directions least expected.
Granted, volunteers and voters become vested in their candidates and grow passionate. But we must remind ourselves that these are human beings who are stepping onto the political stage. They have families in addition to experiences and ambitions.
I give much more grace to political candidates now than I did three years ago. My suspicion of, “What’s in it for you?” has been replaced by, “What’s in it for us?” I attempt to go into conversations with a presumption of good intent from each candidate. I thank them for stepping up because they are why we’re having these conversations.
There are a number of reasons why people choose to run for political office. They believe they can make a difference, or they’ve been adversely affected by a policy or law and want to champion for their cause. Or they are in it because of their ego.
Regardless of intent, it takes fortitude to run for office, and it’s a sacrifice. Campaigns are full-time jobs that don’t pay. Your life is not your own when you’re on the campaign trail.
While it’s our job as voters to discern intent, sincerity, experience and qualifications, I hope we step up with less cynicism and more appreciation.
Mita Havlick is a neighborhood activist. Find her commentary regularly in the back pages of our print edition and online at lakewood.advocatemag.com.
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