It's Expensive And Hard, So Why Run For Office?
Candidates vying for public office on every level subject themselves to intense public scrutiny, constant fundraising and attacks from opponents. Some run because they want power or hope to champion particular issues. Others want to see agendas through or feel they have legacies to fulfill.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Take just a few examples from the last year of campaigning. Businessman Herman Cain tossed his hat into the ring to find his personal life on the front page. Groomed as the frontrunner, Governor Rick Perry of Texas was humbled by a primetime gaffe. And it's hard to count the insults leveled at President Obama.
Throw in endless campaigning, fundraising calls, attack ads, rubber chicken, compromises and the substantial risk that after all that you lose, why would anybody vote for - run for president or mayor or city council? If you decided to run for office, why? If you thought about it and didn't, why not? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, your votes for the best election-day movie of all time. You can email us now, email@example.com. But first why we run. We begin with Mayor Jean Quan on the phone from Oakland, the first Asian-American woman mayor of a major U.S. city. And Mayor, nice to have you with us today.
MAYOR JEAN QUAN: Thank you very much, I'm a big fan of your show.
CONAN: Oh, well thank you for that. It must be a little strange, though, to be a politician on election day who's sitting it out, so to speak.
QUAN: I'm actually not sitting out. We have a lot of local initiatives, and I'm supporting some local candidates. So I never stay home for election day, and I'll spend the turn at the Obama headquarters, getting out the vote in Nevada, later.
CONAN: Well, give us an idea, you've had some experience with some pretty high-profile politicians who preceded you in the mayor's office. One of them is now the governor. The other was a former congressional representative for many years. Why did you decide to run for mayor?
QUAN: You know, this is not an easy decision. I had to give up my council seat. I was running against somebody who was a state leader and people would say literally would have more money than God, and he did outspend me by $2 million. But I think the only reason you do this, you do public service, is love and passion for, in my case this city, Oakland, often gets a bad rap but is one of the most physically beautiful cities in the country.
It's the most diverse city by the Census Bureau. We have the best weather. And it just has this passion and this heart that I've lived in a lot of places but that it has this heart and this spirit and love of diversity that nowhere else in the world that I've lived has.
CONAN: Did your family come into the equation either in a good sense, yeah go get them, or in a bad sense you've got to be crazy?
QUAN: You know, I would not have done this if my family hadn't supported because ever since - I started out as a school board member and later led some of the national caucuses for urban schools. And my kids, when they were young, would go door to door and say please vote for my mom for school board.
And, you know, I went in to save the music program in a school district that hadn't had any school bonds in two decades. And so it was my kids that got me into politics. But it was my daughter, when we were considering this, the fact that I'd have to give up my council seat, the fact that we'd be outspent, we didn't think we'd be outspent by $2 million but we'd be outspent...
QUAN: And that we eventually ended up putting a second mortgage on my home just so I could get enough mail out, basic. And - but I would not have - the reason I won is I had 1,000 volunteers, and so that's why I identify a lot with Barack Obama. No one expected him to win. No one could even pronounce him name when he started, but he had that grassroots support that made a difference.
And my daughter, who is an activist, now works for a state assemblyperson, basically said to me, you know, you're the only person who could probably beat him, and if you don't do it, you'll never know, and you'll be sad every time something happens to the city that you don't like.
And so she was actually the one who really convinced me. She took a year off and worked on my campaign. My husband walked every night. He's a busy doctor. And my son, who's also a doctor, came over and walked. So I wouldn't have ever, ever done this without their support.
CONAN: You mentioned the second mortgage on the home. Making money is not part of this. Salaries for public employees on every level across this country are not great.
QUAN: You know, when I ran for school board, it was like I spent more money than I earned. You know, I think we got a little stipend, and even city council, given the cost of living in Oakland, is a very modest amount. The mayor actually makes - I gave back 25 percent of my pay because the city workers have given back. And the mayor gets paid a decent amount but not what I would make in a private industry or anywhere else, you know, and not for the hours and the stress.
But again, you can't do it for the money. You really have to do it because you have a passion, because you think you'll make a difference.
CONAN: And in your time in office, it has not exactly been stress-free. There have been people in the streets, well, calling you all sorts of names at various times, and I know you probably think you've done some good, too.
QUAN: You know, I think, you know, as mayor, I walked in with a $40 million deficit, and today we have a surplus, and Oakland is - unemployment's down three and a half percent. We've created 5,000 new jobs each year I've been mayor. And so I think if people would look at the record, I don't think these days of watching politics that people necessarily even pay attention to what politicians accomplish or not.
There's so much negativity in the media against local government, and I think in my case, I think there was just a little bit of bullying. I think, you know, when people ask me do I still feel discriminated against because I'm either Asian or a woman, I would often say a woman. I think we get second-guessed a lot more, and people don't assume that we're tough.
I mean, I had a reporter ask me about a year ago if I was tough enough, and I just sort of looked at him. I said, you know, I just beat a guy who's the - was the head of the state Senate and who outspent me by $2 million. How can you even ask me that question?
CONAN: If this is your last job in politics, I'm not saying it is or isn't, but if it is, what are you going to miss, and what won't you miss?
QUAN: I - you know, it sounds corny, but it really is an honor to serve. When I walk to somebody's door and knock on it, and I do it all the time because I've been trying to organize, as President Obama said last night, block-by-block in this city to fight violence and to get people more involved in the city's process. And for me, that's the real thing.
Being mayor, people open their hearts, and they literally let you sit and stand in their shoes in a way that I think no other elected office does. I mean, I'm highly recognized. I walk down the street, people stop and tell me their stories. I'm going to miss that, and I'm going to miss - because I'm mayor, I do expect to get my phone calls answered. And I think I'll miss that.
CONAN: I don't suspect you probably won't miss making your last fundraising call.
QUAN: Absolutely not. I'm a bad fundraiser. That's why we put a second mortgage on our house. I mean, it's hard for me to ask for money, and the system is sort of set up with big PACs now. That makes it very difficult. I wouldn't have won based on my money for sure.
I did win because I could get 1,000 volunteers signed up after walking door-to-door for about 18 months.
CONAN: Mayor Quan, thanks very much for your time today.
QUAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Jean Quan, mayor of Oakland, California, with us by phone from her office there. We're asking those of you who've ever run for office why'd you do it. If you thought about it and didn't do it, how come? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org.
And joining us now from member station WFYI in Indianapolis is Craig Fehrman, a freelance writer and currently working on a book about presidents and their books. His op-ed "Why Do They Run?" ran in the Los Angeles Times last month. And Craig Fehrman, thanks very much for joining us on the program.
CRAIG FEHRMAN: Hey, thanks for having me.
CONAN: And given your research but also given a reality, you suspected that the only honest answer you were going to find was in - buried in people's diaries, in president's diaries, or perhaps in their autobiographies.
FEHRMAN: Yeah, it's one of those questions where most presidents have given answers very similar to what Mayor Quan just gave, about love and passion. I think that's absolutely true, but there's probably a little bit more to it. And digging into the historical archive is sometimes the best way to find those answers.
CONAN: What's the most interesting one you've found so far?
FEHRMAN: Well, I think my favorite, in the op-ed I wrote for the Los Angeles Times, I listed five quotations from the archive where presidents kind of in their own words explained why they ran. I think my favorite one that I found was from John Quincy Adams, and he was just very up front talking about his historical legacy.
He was a guy who had served as an ambassador for several presidents. He was a guy who'd been a secretary of state, which was a very powerful position in the 19th century. And so he had a lot on the line. He knew if he lost the presidency, he - that that would be in some sense a referendum on his previous public service.
I imagine his dad was also in the back of his mind because he also lost a national election. So I found in his diary that Quincy Adams wrote that: I have more stake upon the result than any other individual in the union. And he said that because he was worried about his legacy, and that's an honesty that I find really appealing.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some other people on the staff to be equally - listeners to be equally revealing. Let's go to Celia(ph), Celia's on the line with us from Flagstaff, Arizona.
CELIA: Hi there.
CONAN: Hi, did you run for office?
CELIA: Yes, I ran for city council in 2010, and I came in first place out of eight candidates, so I became the vice-mayor, and now I'm serving out the second two years of my four-year term as a regular council member.
CONAN: And why did you decide to run?
CELIA: I decided to run for council because I have never lived in such a fabulous place as Flagstaff, Arizona. And I had served many years on the planning and zoning commission and had learned so much about both the county and the city, and I felt like I really could make a contribution.
I understand the people here and what their values are, and I felt like it was really important to have another voice on the council who could help make this place - or keep this place so great.
CONAN: Was there one overriding issue that you were passionate about?
CELIA: Yes, well, I have a background in land use, and so I felt with my experience on the planning and zoning commission that I could make a difference in land use decisions and support for a rural community in northern Arizona. And so land use is a big deal: how we grow, whether we grow. People really, really care about those issues. And so that's why I ran for council.
CONAN: And how has it worked out? Are you happy in office?
CELIA: I love being on the city council. I love it so much, but I can't say it isn't without stress. There have been times that it's been very, very stressful, but I think people here really value their elected officials. People are engaged. People are involved. And so it's been the most rewarding experience I've ever had in my entire life.
CONAN: Well, Celia, thanks very much for the call.
CELIA: Thank you.
CONAN: And Craig Fehrman, on the national level, you say overriding issues sometimes the most important reason somebody runs, maybe not land use in Flagstaff but other powerful issues.
FEHRMAN: Sure, I think one of the best examples I found on this was Abraham Lincoln and the idea of slavery, what he called the great and durable question of the age. It's really interesting that even in letters, Lincoln didn't explicitly say this is why I decided to run for president or even I have now decided to run for president.
But we can kind of infer from his letters, just talking openly about what the next president should look like or about why he ran for Senate that this question, the question of slavery, was really lingering in his mind and that while he ran for president to accomplish a lot of things, this was the issue that he knew that he had to run for in order to achieve what he wanted.
CONAN: We're talking about what drives people to run for public office. Up next, we'll speak with former Ohio Governor Robert Taft, politics for him almost genetic. If you decided to run for office, why? If you thought about it and didn't, why not? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Former Florida Congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite told Marie Clare magazine she first ran for public office to fight efforts to store and burn toxic waste in her county. It pushed her to run for county commissioner. She won.
We're talking today about why, with all the scrutiny, the fundraising, the attacks and the hassles, anyone would run for public office. If you decided to run for office, why? If you thought about it and didn't, why not? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And here's an email from Mark in Holstein, Missouri: I ran for county commissioner for Warren County four years ago, and it was great. Running for office is the best way to get your opinion heard and questions answered because you're invited to countless meet-the-candidate events. I got hammered in the election, and it was a blast. Run.
Our guest is Craig Fehrman. His op-ed "Why Do They Run?" ran in the Los Angeles Times last month. We've posted a link to it at npr.org. And you'd think, Craig Fehrman, that power would figure in to somebody's decision.
FEHRMAN: Well, sure, I think that's one of those things that people don't want to say explicitly, but it's certainly there. Another great quotation that I try to include in my op-ed was from John F. Kennedy. And it's kind of - it's fun because it was recorded at a dinner party. It's - several times in this election cycle we've seen things recorded in private become very important in public.
In this case, Kennedy was talking about why he decided to run for the presidency. And he said, you know, I could have been a lawyer, but then I would have been dealing with estate cases and divorces. I wanted to make a difference, which I think we would all, you know, agree with.
But then he went on to say in this recording: The presidency today is the seat of all power. And he was very frank - in private, at least - that power was a big motivator for him deciding to run.
CONAN: Joining us now by phone from his office at the University of Dayton is former Ohio Governor Robert Taft. He served as an elected official in that state for 30 consecutive years, most recently as governor from 1999 to 2007, currently teaching at the University of Dayton. And Governor, nice to have you back with us.
ROBERT TAFT: Neal, it's my pleasure to be with you.
CONAN: And some people might think it's the family business for you, a long distinguished record of Tafts. But clearly you had to think about it at some point and make a decision.
TAFT: That's right. I didn't start out that way. I started out as a teacher, a schoolteacher in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, East Africa. And I really enjoyed dealing with education from that standpoint. I worked in the executive branch in the state of Illinois for a governor who I really admired. He kind of inspired me to follow in his footsteps.
And I recognized what an influence and impact on our lives, particularly in the field of education, that state government has.
CONAN: State government, your family obviously involved in the federal government, either the presidential level, the Supreme Court or the United States Senate for many years. You never wanted to go to Washington?
TAFT: I never did. It's a big world. It's a complicated world. I admire people who go to Washington, you know, to fight the good fight, but I'm not sure I have the patience to deal with Washington. State government is a little bit of a smaller arena. You can really get some things done, as I hope that we did when I served as governor in terms of school reform and improving the economic climate for Ohio and, you know, cleaning up the state in certain ways and so forth.
So I really enjoyed, you know, getting things done as governor and also as a state legislator.
CONAN: You now teach politics. The game has changed since you've left office. Clearly the money is a much bigger factor than it was when you started out in your career. What else about the game do you think might discourage people these days from saying, you know, it may not be worth it?
TAFT: Well, the bitterness of the campaigns, the intensity of the public scrutiny of your personal lives, just the time it takes to raise money, the time it takes to campaign. I am concerned that we won't have the best people going into public service, which has been a huge part of my career.
CONAN: And your students, are they inspired to run, or are they saying, well, maybe I can run and get a job and then get a job as a lobbyist and make some real money?
TAFT: Well, Neal, I'm working hard not to discourage them.
TAFT: But when you look at gridlock in Washington and the fiscal cliff and, you know, the debt limit fiasco and all those issues, it's sometimes difficult not to discourage them. But, you know, what you tell them is, you know, hopefully your generation can do a better job, and you guys can get in there and clean it up.
CONAN: And I wonder: Did your family history in the end - yes, you were a teacher - but did your family history in the end said, you know, this might not work out too badly?
TAFT: Well, you know, nobody pushed me. There was absolutely no pressure whatsoever. But it certainly created the opportunity for me to do this. You know, the name was out there and recognized. Of course that's the first hurdle when you start running for office.
And I had campaigned for my dad when he ran for the U.S. Senate. So I knew what I was getting into.
CONAN: So it's interesting - however, is the family tradition going to continue?
TAFT: Well, not with my daughter, I guarantee you.
TAFT: She does work around the world, in Ecuador and West Africa. She's doing a lot of great things. But I don't - I would be shocked and stunned if she got into elected politics. But I hope that young people listening here will think about doing it because we need them at all levels: local, state and federal.
CONAN: So she's following your footsteps in some degree and working overseas?
TAFT: She's doing community projects and international volunteer vacations and that kind of thing. It's wonderful stuff and good stuff, and she's making a difference in her own way. But I really enjoyed, you know, my career in state government.
CONAN: Governor Taft, thanks very much for being with us today.
TAFT: My pleasure.
CONAN: Robert Taft, governor of Ohio from 1999 to 2007, currently teaching at the University of Dayton, with us by phone from his office there. And Craig Fehrman, as you listen to that, well, those are all wonderful reasons to run for office.
FEHRMAN: Sure, absolutely, and one thing it made me think of was another quotation in my op-ed, and that's just on the family dynamics. This was from George W. Bush's memoir, "Decision Points," which just came out a couple years ago. He included an entire chapter on his decision to run for president, and it's interesting that in that chapter, again and again, and in kind of surprising or unexpected ways, his father keeps popping up.
And so if we were going to put our literary critic's hat on for a second, we could kind read between the lines there and say that perhaps, you know, perhaps a desire to live up to his father or to continue his father's legacy played an important part in his decision, whether he admits it or not.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Woody, Woody on the line with us from Indianapolis.
WOODY: Certainly, thanks for taking my call. I was in Hoosier Boys State. My grandfather practiced law 52 years, and in '76, when Reagan came through town, I was involved with that, and I was a page in the state legislature here in the Senate and the House. And so I've kind of got the fire in the belly, so to speak.
And after working at a General Motors defense plant here for 30 years, I often thought if Congressman Burton were to ever get out, I would like to try to fill those shoes, because the ticket would be wide open, you know. And after seeing what Herman Cain and all these others went through, you know, and being a single male and almost a million miles in the air and frequent trips to San Francisco, I just didn't want all those cans of worms open, so to speak.
But you know, I really had it. I went to Hoosier Boys State. I don't know if you're familiar with that program, with the American Legion Hoosier Boys State and Hoosier Girl State, and then we had Boys' Nation and Girls' Nation. Bill Clinton was in Boys Nation.
CONAN: Oh, so these are leadership preparation programs?
WOODY: Sort of, yeah, and then of course being in the legislature with Senator Leslie Duvall(ph) and Representative John Hart(ph), and I've got photos of me with Governor Otis Bowen and then Senator Dick - Mayor Richard Luger. And you know, and hung out down in (unintelligible) I really, really had it. But I tell you, working at a defense plant and then telling them you're going to San Francisco every weekend, it was hell. It was a big bully thing, and it just would have gotten worse.
And with 10,000 seniors becoming seniors every day, I wouldn't have a senior citizen platform. I just see so much disgrace brought on to our seniors. It's just livid.
CONAN: Well, Woody, you clearly have the speaking qualifications, we can hear that, and some of the background for it, and I'm sorry you felt you couldn't do it.
WOODY: Well, you just never know. If I hit the lottery, I'd have deep pockets. But I tell you, I have - my neighbor Doris, she's 90, and I help her out. And my Aunt Pauline lived in Coney Island. She lived to be 107. Some of the things - and, you know, some of the things that seniors are tortured with is just sad.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
WOODY: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And Craig Fehrman, as you listen to that, you're doing a book about why people decided to run, but boy, the scrutiny that candidates get these days, and really that's nothing new in American politics.
FEHRMAN: No, absolutely not. Another example that I used was Harry Truman, and he talked - he talked that his family didn't want him to run. He was, of course, a vice president who was pushed into the presidential role, and it was something that while he was happy to serve, his family was trying to tug him home and say this is enough, we don't need the scrutiny. That was more than 50 years and, you know, home many media and information revolutions ago.
Even then there was the pressure. You can multiply that by a great degree to try to understand it today.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Jenna, Jenna with us from St. Mary's in Kansas.
JENNA: Hi, thanks for taking my call.
JENNA: I appreciate all the encouragement. I think everyone has accidentally been telling me to run for office.
CONAN: And what might you run for?
JENNA: I went down to the planning board, and they encouraged me to join. I was - I thought I would be scrutinized. I was younger. I was a woman, and in my town, that is - isn't necessarily always a good thing. It's very traditional Catholic, and I felt that I would be shot down. And they were just welcoming.
I - listen, I appreciate the mayor making the comment. I will now be running for school board. I was thinking about it. She's kind of confirmed it. My kids are getting in there. I need to get involved, and I just appreciate all the encouragement, especially from your conversation.
CONAN: Well, that's interesting. And as you look at the race, it's an opportunity, sure. It's an opportunity to serve. Is there an issue that's driving you?
JENNA: I did not grow up in the town. My husband did, and it is different now than it was. It used to be, like where I grew up, you know, very small, very rural, but it's very divided. And it's sad that - it seems like the church is dividing the town. And I'm of the same faith. I really just feel like there's no need to have this divide.
We all want to build the community, and I don't feel like the focus is being put on the right things to build and develop the community. I feel like it's going the opposite direction, and I want to change it. There's no young people involved anymore.
CONAN: That's a good point, but you say you're being encouraged. At the same time, you probably know that if you take an unpopular position, words may not be so kind.
JENNA: I'm afraid it will affect - my husband and I are doing a small contracting business. I don't know if it will help or hurt. I don't know what to think of that. That's been my big holdback.
CONAN: Well, good luck making the decision. And if you decide to get in, we wish you the best of luck.
JENNA: Thank you. I appreciate it so much. Thank you.
CONAN: And as you go through these diaries and autobiographies, Craig Fehrman, yes, issues, yes, legacy. Is vanity any part of it?
FEHRMAN: Well, I think it absolutely is, and I think the John Quincy Adams quotation we talked about a little bit earlier in the broadcast is the best example of that. Even then, he's writing in his - in a diary where no one can see, and he kind of tempers that vanity and says, you know, I don't want people to look negatively on the issues that I've stood behind.
But, again, it's pretty clear that he's interested in his reputation, and he's interested in the power, much like Kennedy. These are the kinds of things that candidates, for obvious reason, can't come out and say. But I think we can speculate that that's behind a lot of runs for office.
CONAN: And ambition. You're not going to get to that level of politics without considerable ambition.
FEHRMAN: Sure. It's a tough slog to have to get through, so you have to want it to be able to subject yourself to that.
CONAN: Well, Craig Fehrman, thank you very much for your time today.
FEHRMAN: Hey, thanks for having me.
CONAN: Craig Fehrman, a freelance writer. He's published in The New York Times, The New Republic. He's working on a book about presidents and their books and wrote an op-ed called "Why Do They Run?" which appeared last month in the Los Angeles Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.