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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. We welcome with regularity, the next generation of public servants, who are working to cultivate a new civic creed. Among those who come to mind, Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org, Selena Grey of the Mayday Pac, Nick Troiano of The Centrist Project, most recently Jimmy Dahman, creator of the Town Hall Project. To their ranks we add today, 20-something political operative, Amanda Litman who founded Run for Something, a new nonprofit organization, that’s recruiting forward thinking candidates to enter elections in 2017 and beyond. A veteran of presidential, national, and state organizing, Litman is author of the new volume, “Don’t Just March Run for Something: A Real-Talk Guide to Fixing the System Yourself.”
Litman points out, indeed there are a half-million elected office holders in the United States, across federal, state, and local municipalities. And she asked why you can’t be one of them. Litman is a proud Democratic, whose progressive group believes millennials, and newcomer candidates in particular, are the key to rescuing the party from its historic weakness, despite, of course, having won more votes in both the presidential contest, and combined house and senate elections. Amanda, it’s a pleasure to meet you today.
LITMAN: Pleasure to meet you.
HEFFNER: Congratulations on this book…
LITMAN: Thank you.
HEFFNER: You are encouraging your…
HEFFNER: Fellow country mean and women to run for something.
LITMAN: I am. It’s the entire point, this idea that it is north enough just to march, it’s not enough just to tweet, it’s not enough to just post on Facebook. If you really care about solving a problem, running for office is the best way to do it.
HEFFNER: And how is the message being received?
LITMAN: Uh, amazing. So, we launched on inauguration day, and we thought that this would be small, we would struggle to get 100 people in the first year who want to run. And the first six months, we had more than 10,000 people sign up to say they’re interested in running for office, we have hundreds of people already on the ballot, uh, and we’re already endorsing 65 young millennials who are first or second time candidates.
HEFFNER: You were noticing in the air an organic energy around progressive candidates that might be, might remind people of the Tea Party, uh, I think, you were concerned in the same breath, that the DNC is already exerting too much control over the 2018 midterm election. Is that still the case, or do you think that these smaller groups that have come, yours in particular that’s focused on candidate recruitment, are going to be given the, the chance they deserve, and their candidates are gonna be given the chance they deserve?
LITMAN: Yeah. I mean I think it’s important to keep in mind the role of the DNC in particular, since that’s the committee you mentioned, and that their responsibility is to help, uh, presidential elections, and the national party infrastructure, and support state parties. The state parties are the ones that are actively engaged in local politics, and they are, unfortunately drastically underfunded and under resourced. I don’t think their lack of attention to local politics is, is malevolent. I don’t think it’s bad intentions. I, I don’t think it’s uh, spiteful. I think it’s, they don’t have the capacity and the resources to do the work, uh, and that has left us in the point where, uh, Democrats don’t have control of nearly half the country, or more than half the country in terms of state legislatures and governors offices, and there aren’t resources available for you if you want to run for local office. There isn’t a committee there that exists for potential schoolboard members, for potential city council members. And that felt like a hole in the progressive infrastructure, that we were able to fill.
HEFFNER: And as you seek to fill that hole, and literally elect candidates, are the majority of the folks with whom you’re working at the local level, and what does that mean for people who are watching that say, maybe ‘ll run for office? What are the possibilities?
LITMAN: Um, so we exclusively work with candidates who are running for local and state legislature offices. Uh, if you’re running for governor, if you’re running for congress, that’s great. There are other people who can help you. We exclusively focus on first and second time candidates, who are thinking about positions like school-board, city council, state leg-, uh, county commissioner, town supervisor, the places where if you’ve never been an elected official before, your point of entry is, is accessible, and it really matters to have progressives in these positions. You know we’ve seen his with city councils and schoolboards that have been overrun by conservatives making decisions that are detrimental to our communities.
HEFFNER: What have the results been thus far?
LITMAN: Um, of our organization? I think uh, more than we could have hoped for. Uh, that we’ve gotten 10,000 people saying they care about local elections and they want to run, is unforeseen and unprecedented. Uh, our candidates that are running now, that we’ve been endorsing, are amazing. They are, uh, nearly half women, nearly half people of color, uh, running for offices in, I believe we have 18 states currently represented, places where there are blue communities, and places where there are red communities. And these folks aren’t shying away from the fight. They’re saying, I care enough to put my life out into the public sphere, to change my life’s direction, and do something.
HEFFNER: I think that’s a challenge for millennials,
HEFFNER: Speaking broadly, they feel as though they are, their identity doesn’t derive from a single locality, a single zip code.
LITMAN: Totally, and that makes it harder. I mean I am intimately familiar with this. I lived in four cities in 13 months, uh, at one point. So I understand what it means to not feel like you have roots somewhere, but the folks that we’re working with, we ask them to either be authentically rooted in their community, whatever that means for where you are, or to have a network, thinking about, if you were gonna launch you campaign in a week, do you know where you’d hold it? Would you be able to fill the room? Uh, have you been invested in what the community is doing, in terms of getting to know the activists, the members, the, the leaders? Have you done your due diligence, to make sure that when you say you represent a place, you understand what that means.
HEFFNER: How many of them might everybody accused of being carpetbaggers?
LITMAN: Not as many as you’d think, in part because it’s so common these days to have jumped around a bit, which I find to be really…
HEFFNER: Expound, expound on that. You have the opportunity to uh, what, the, challenge is, a residency requirement…
HEFFNER: The challenge is, even if you might have been born somewhere, retaining that…
HEFFNER: Historical connection, uh, and I think that you know, a reason that at the federal level…
HEFFNER: You identify older typically men, keep getting elected and reelected, is they’re working within this paradigm of having lived in that state or that county for so many years, it must be very challenging for someone to run when they don’t have a story to tell, anchored in that community. But can they still do it?
LITMAN: They absolutely can, and I think we have seen candidates who said, I moved somewhere three years ago, uh, I spent those three years listening, learning, and participating. And if that’s what you’ve done, then you understand what it means to be of a place. Um, I think some of our candidates say, you know, the bigger thing that knocks against them, is not their lack of necessarily roots somewhere, uh, but it’s their age, and their inexperience. And they hear from voters when they go to the door, you know, you don’t have a long resume, what have you actually done. The reality is, is that they are representative of a voice in government that isn’t here, uh, and that needs to be heard. They also tend to come from a place of running for the right reason, running to do something and not be something. Um, every person who comes through our doors, we ask, why are you running for office. What is the problem you want to solve and what is the, how does the office you’re running for let you solve it? If you can answer that question clearly and eloquently and articulately, um, your campaign is better off.
HEFFNER: And if the answer is yes, and you, in effect, want to sanction, approve, or help fund…
HEFFNER: Or connect this candidate with a constituency and a network, what’s the next step for that person who’s working with you.
LITMAN: So anyone who comes through our doors has a one on one with one of our volunteers, in which they’re looking for four key things. Is this person progressive? Whatever is means for wherever they are? Are they authentically rooted in their community? Is thus person willing to work hard and knock doors, because local races are won and lost by the candidate themselves getting out there. And is this person interesting and compelling to talk to? Do they have a good story? Um, are they fun? Are they engaging? Um, if the candidate meets those four criteria, they enter our community. From there, we have access to uh, a network of mentors. Uh, we have state leads in nearly two thirds of the country, which are experts and local politics that we connect them to. We also connect them to groups that o training, and provide other funding. We have partnerships with nearly every major candidate support group across the country, and our candidates are getting, um, special access to some of their resources.
HEFFNER: As of our recording,
HEFFNER: Have there been any elections or any victories in which, from your candidates?
LITMAN: A few. You know, local elections tend to happen every week, it seems like. Um, one of my favorite anecdotes is a young woman named Heather Ward, who’s running for schoolboard outside Philadelphia. She decided to run after Trump’s election. Uh, Betsy DeVos made her realize, I’m smarter than this woman. Why shouldn’t I run for schoolboard. Uh, so while being a senior in college, she spent January through May knocking doors, making calls, and talking to voters. We helped her with some mentorship, we gave her someone support, we got, talked her through her campaign plan, and in May, she had a primary and she won. And she told us, explicitly that she heard from voters at the polls, and coworkers heard the same, that they voted for her because they met her, because they got to know her, because she put in the work. So, she’s currently running for November’s uh, election, and I am sure that win or lose, this is not the end of her work, because she’s committed to do it for the right reasons.
HEFFNER: But your big game, Amanda…
HEFFNER: Is retail politics.
LITMAN: Yeah, which, it feels very, uh, far from that. I pass as a digital professional. It feels very far from that but, when it comes to local politics, what matters more than anything else, is a person-to person connection.
HEFFNER: Do these candidates employ digital technology to their benefit?
LITMAN: Absolutely, and I think it’s one of the great things about millennials running, is that most of us have grown up on the internet. Um, it’s why it’s not as big of a deal if you have embarrassing tweets, or silly Instagram photos, because nearly…
HEFFNER: Well, yeah, I mean…
LITMAN: I mean, there are lines…
HEFFNER: Embarrassing to, right, right…
LITMAN: But, there’s a difference between…
LITMAN: Um, say a photo of you playing beer pong in college…
LITMAN: And uh, tweeting something egregiously racist, like our president does on a regular basis. And voters are showing what they’re willing to accept, and we try and focus more on the former than, and deny the latter, but, uh, our candidates are really comfortable online, and I think that makes a difference. In another way, they’re able to connect with voters.
HEFFNER: Well I, I question myself now, Amanda,
HEFFNER: Because you have to be unafraid to run today,
LITMAN: Oh it’s…
HEFFNER: You might have…
HEFFNER: Had to be unafraid in the H. W. Bush era. You remember, the Willy Horton ad…
HEFFNER: There are always attempts to um, undermine your campaign or candidacy through attack ads. It’s, it’s definitely gotten higher velocity, meaner, uglier recently, but you know the people who volunteer and seek out your support you know, they do have, they really have to be unafraid.
LITMAN: Our candidates, why our candidates are so inspiring, is that they are willing to put their lives out there, to live publicly. Um, it’s also worth noting that most city council, schoolboard, town supervisor elections, don’t get that nasty, in part because it’s personal. Um, I at one point talked to a local elected official who was telling me, yeah, you know, I don’t get attacked as much, because the person I’m attacking, I probably run into their mom at the grocery store the next day, or I see them, um, at religious services the following weekend. Because it’s so local and so small, you don’t get as nasty in that kind of way.
HEFFNER: You cite the diversity of the party.
HEFFNER: It’s at a crossroads in its desire to continue to embrace a pluralistic vision that was heralded by the most recent Democratic president, Barack Obama. And at the same time, there’s a desire on the party to not sacrifice, uh, voters who do have tribal appeals. Uh, and the reality is, the most visceral appeal to any human being, is their flesh.
HEFFNER: How are you grappling with this, as someone who’s worked for Democratic candidates and has sought out um, to find a medium between modernizing the party to the point that the pluralism does not become overly sanctimonious…
HEFFNER: And it also doesn’t become uh, problematic in that you are making an identity politics argument, just as much as your opponent is.
LITMAN: I think it’s important to think about, uh, diversity is not important just for diversity’s sake. It matters that our elected officials and that our community leaders, uh, reflect the communities they’re from, and reflect the voters that they’re trying to engage with, um, in part because those lived experiences influence how they govern and how they legislate. Um, I think it is ridiculous to dismiss identity politics as unimpotna.t uh, you only have the luxury of doing that if you’re a white man for who your identity is the norm. Um, as a young woman or a young person of color, it matters to see people like you leading, uh, and governing, in part because you know that they’re not, they’re keeping in mind the problems that you face as a particular part of a community. Um, that’s something that we as Democrats can’t dismiss out of hand, because the other side isn’t going to.
HEFFNER: Right. Uh, how do you best respond to a backlash against the election of people who are different from you? I mean this is the story of the Obama and Trump legacy now, in part that it was a rebuke of, or, or a kind of dis-ownership of that more diverse story of America.
LITMAN: Um, I think part of it is just, keep getting people running who will fight back against it, and are willing to argue loudly and vigorously, that it matters that their voices are heard. I think, you know, while we film this, it’s in the midst of the KKK and Nazis in Charlottesville and, and a rise of white supremacy is feeling legitimized, and it is equally, and in fact, even more so important, to have people who can push back against that, because those are folks who are claiming identity politics as their own.
HEFFNER: You’re more encouraged at the state level when it comes to the practical realities of running a campaign in terms of the money factor. You were involved in digital operations for a gubernatorial candidate, a presidential candidate. Uh, can the emphasis be placed more on people in the local elections, or how much uh, is, is money still as much a concern, just scaled back, proportional to whatever constituency we’re talking about?
LITMAN: Well, money matters. In any campaign, uh, the two metrics you have of whether someone is going to support you is their vote, which your not gonna find out until election day, or your investment in their organization, which is either their time, or more publicly, their money. So, it does matter that candidates are able to get others to invest in their organization. That being said, 75 percent of schoolboard races, schoolboard races cost $1,000 or less. 85 percent cost $5,000 or less uh, many city counsel races range in the 10 to 20 thousand dollar range, depending on where you are in the media market, and what you’re investing in. um, state legislative races can vary depending from state to state. Uh, it is definitely harder, the bigger the race you’re in, to raise that kind of money, but it is ultimately not as much as you’d think, and I think our candidates are finding that, when they reach out to their friends and their neighbors, you know, their initial circle, the people who know them and trust them, they are surprised at who will step up to give.
HEFFNER: How many of the positions that folks are running for, are paid? You know, you have…
HEFFNER: Positions in this country, from County Executive, to State Legislator, that may or may not have salary.
LITMAN: Many of the state legislators or most, I believe all state legislators are paid in some form. Some of them are as small as $400 a year, plus a per diem. Some of them are full time jobs, where it’s $100,000 a year. Um, the structure of our institutions determine the people who enter them. I wish that those institutions were better paid. I wish that they were more accessible to people who can take off time from work, or who don’t have to work a second job in order to fill them. The best way to fix that is for more people to run, win, and pass legislation [LAUGHTER] that does that. There isn’t an easy answer to fixing the system that will happen tomorrow.
HEFFNER: But that’s such a predicament to be in, because one thing voters don’t want to hear is, at least not from their elected officials,
HEFFNER: The rent is too damn high or, my salary isn’t enough.
LITMAN: It sucks. There, I wish I had a better answer for it. You know, I think it’s telling that in states where the, uh, chambers and the state legislators have a more accommodating schedule, you get more women. So, one of the reasons New Hampshire has the first all female delegation of members of congress, is because they’re, uh, New Hampshire legislature is predominantly women, in part because it’s more accessible for, uh, mothers and uh, stay at home moms who can enter.
HEFFNER: But I want you to reflect on this question of how, how can you get the paradigm to shift.
LITMAN: I think it’ll everybody tough. Uh, there are a lot of great organizations, including the State Innovation Exchange and others that uh, help state legislators figure out how to navigate these kinds of policy waters. Uh…
HEFFNER: I mean you wonder why bribery is so rampant…
HEFFNER: And why there are investigations into nearly, uh, every legislative body, be it one member or an executive officer like a governor. I mean it, it…
HEFFNER: It seems…
LITMAN: I think state…
HEFFNER: Is it, am I too intuitive, reading into this that these local are not being paid or paid adequately, they are gonna seek an alternative?
LITMAN: Well, I hope that’s not true of our candidates.
HEFFNER: I’m not saying this for your candidates. You’re, you’re describing the candidates who might revise this, this cycle.
LITMAN: Yeah, I mean, I think that it matters that we pay and treat our elected officials fairly. It’s true that, say, the time commitment of a city council man or a schoolboard member is different from that of a state legislator, um, which is different from that of a member of congress. Um, and if we want our state legislators to be reflective of their communities, and be more than just wealthy people who can afford to take time off, we need to make our structures such that those kinds of people can enter.
HEFFNER: It mind boggling to hear you say that, take time off, because you then presume that, and I do, some of these legislators, they’ll meet every other year…
HEFFNER: Budgets are ratified and put into motion on the time-table of the governor. In other states, legislative bodies are more empowered. Where, where do you see, among your candidates, the states that are more successful right now, in a model to how, how to prepare a legislative process that is inviting of candidates who want to serve the public.
LITMAN: It’s a really interesting question. I’m not sure I can point to any specific state that does it particularly well. I think New Hampshire is one, uh, Florida gets closer-ish.
HEFFNER: How so?
HEFFNER: You deal with a lot of states, so you know…
LITMAN: I deal with a lot of states. Uh…
HEFFNER: Whether the legislators are paid…
LITMAN: Yeah, uh…
HEFFNER: Whether or not they’re uh, what the terms are, term limits, uh…
LITMAN: Well, Florida, so, Florida has pretty strict term limits. I think California does a good job, in that they pay their state legislators extremely well. Uh, a few others in particular, I think, like New York city council is actually a really interesting example, in that there are term limits, uh, which means there’s a lot of turnover, and a lot of uh, ways for new people to get engaged. There’s also public financing. Any state that has public financing, or any city that has public financing, means that people who can’t afford to raise it directly from their networks have access to resources that creates more of an equal playing field.
HEFFNER: There then is competition…
HEFFNER: In some states, you have to be a financier to enter the race, in effect, or…
HEFFNER: Have some capitol,
HEFFNER: In some cases, yeah
HEFFNER: Especially if you’re not gonna be paid.
LITMAN: In some places, yeah, which is really unfortunate.
HEFFNER: Which brings us to a broader philosophical question, which I know you contemplated writing a book. And you clearly would say, yes, they deserve to be paid: servants of the public.
LITMAN: In many places it’s a job, and you deserve to get paid fairly for that job. I would not say that’s my primary goal…
HEFFNER: No, no I,
HEFFNER: I know it’s not your primary goal, but I, I,…
HEFFNER: That, that is a,
LITMAN: It is definitely one,
HEFFNER: Principle obstacle.
LITMAN: One of the things that we can fix in our systems in order to make them more accessible to more people, which I think, in the long run is really important. Would I say it’s the number one priority of any state legislature? No. But, uh, in some cases, in particular where there is progressive majorities, there is room for flexibility here. And there is potential.
HEFFNER: How do you hope, after the first year of this project, what would you hope is the outcome? We’ve talked specifically now about the nature of local representation, but we’ve focused in particular on the legislative bodies. What about other offices, and your hope that there can be some policy objectives carried out through the election of these representatives?
LITMAN: I am really excited about some of the places we’re working, where Democrats haven’t run and organized in quite some time. Uh, for example, Kansas, uh, Oklahoma, uh, some districts in Texas, even some places in Virginia, where we’re running candidates who are in districts that, uh, Democrats have let go, uncontested, for decades. These are places that maybe our candidates won’t win, but the organizing they’re doing, the fact that they’re standing up campaigns, focusing on voter contact, getting volunteers engaged, and then, no matter what happens on election day, staying engaged, is the literal definition of party building, and it’s how we eventually win these places, even if it’s not in one year or two years, or five years.
HEFFNER: Unsung positions of value, that folks don’t realize,
HEFFNER: What’s the top, what’s at that opioid of that list?
LITMAN: Schoolboard. Schoolboard, schoolboard, schoolboard. Um, depending on the state, uh, they tend to have different, uh, levels of education policy you can get engaged with. Um, the one that comes out to mind to me, is Texas. Um, the Texas State Board of Education, because Texas is one of the largest textbook markets in the country, uh, gets line item veto over what’s in their school textbooks, which means publishers, uh, focus their efforts to what the Texas schoolboard and the State Board of Education will approve. That’s how you get creationism in text books, uh, that’s how you get a whitewashed version of history in textbooks. Uh, it matters to have progressives in these positions. Uh, think about some of the, uh, transgender rights fights in schools. Uh, often the places where a community decides what they value, is in the school. Uh, so I think it matters to have progressives in these positions across the country. It’s also where you tend to get the best, uh, candidates from, long-term, because these are people that are rooted in a community. And schoolboards are more diverse. I believe 44 percent of schoolboard, uh, members are women.
HEFFNER: Are schoolboard positions paid.
LITMAN: Uh, it varies from place to place, often not. They’re often volunteer.
HEFFNER: Well, I think you said to our viewers, schoolboard, schoolboard, schoolboard,
LITMAN: Those were the words, [LAUGHTER]
HEFFNER: I think you’re right.
HEFFNER: I think you’re right. How did the Democrats, after premiering and pledging, promising a 50 state strategy, winning back congress in 2006, then ultimately just,
everything fell, fell off the wagon.
HEFFNER: The promise was made of a continued fifty state strategy. What happened.
LITMAN: Uh, an economic crash, war, uh, hurricanes, you know a lot of uh, major crises that the president had to deal with. Uh, and this, you also saw, you, I think you saw, uh, a lot of people who got engaged for the president, and then didn’t stay engaged because there wasn’t someone leading the charge in their local area. Um, I think we got a little complacent, and that’s unfortunate. The, the only possible silver lining of a Trump presidency, is that people are waking up, they’re realizing this matters, that politics directly affects their lives, and they can’t sit back and let someone else care about it for them. Um, it is the only good thing to come out of the November election.
HEFFNER: Amanda. Thank you for joining me today.
LITMAN: Thank you for having me. This was fun.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of idea. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programing.