At our November General Meeting, we were lucky to hear from fantastic District Leader (DL) electeds and former candidates -- thank you to Olanike Alabi (AD 57), Lori Citron Knipel (AD 44), Nick Rizzo (AD 50), and Genesis Aquino (AD 51).
As we're all learning more about what makes a great DL and how they can advocate on behalf of their communities, check out this Q&A with former DL candidate in AD 50 in North Brooklyn Emily Gallagher. Thanks, Emily!
This Q&A has been edited -- lightly -- for clarity.
Why did you want to serve as a District Leader?
I was approached to run for district leader by a few friends of mine who were involved in New Kings Democrats (NKD). They wanted to run an experiment to see if someone like me, who had been involved in neighborhood organizing for 10 years & politically left would be able to unseat a 32-year incumbent. Kate Zidar had run once before me while she was running Newtown Creek Alliance in 2008 and had nearly won, so this was a similar tactic. I ran in the period when we still thought Hillary Clinton would be president (or, as I hoped, Bernie Sanders!) so it was a different era... I think a lot of people woke up after the Donald Trump election, and this all happened before it.
What was your campaign strategy?
If you want a truly honest answer, I wouldn't say strategy was one of our strong suits. Many of the folks involved in my campaign were pretty new to it and there were a lot of long nights of panic and frustration. We were very dependent on NKD for guidance. We did also have a professional political strategy company assisting us pro-bono, (I would name them but I'm not sure they'd like that,) so they advised us where they could and really helped get us professional lit and mailers and to run our fundraisers. It helped to know they had our back and we could ask them questions and they guided us through the process -- and really, the process is very opaque without a guide. That said, I do remember being quite surprised when we frequently had no one show up to canvas. We were also linked to the Medina campaign so we shared petitions, which was great. Nick Rizzo would stop by when he could and would call me to give advice or keep me updated on goings on. On a good day I would have about 10-20 people show up to help, but towards the end it was more common to have absolutely no one but my ex-boyfriend and the college student that was helping us, and maybe one other person. When you are running you have to get used to spending every waking day doing something campaign related -- and it was even harder for me because I have a full-time job with an office in Harlem and had to work every Thursday night -- so I was constantly running from work to a campaign event, or getting up very early to try to do something before I had to take my hour-long commute. Add onto this that I was nervous and scared, and you have a recipe for a meltdown!
My ex-boyfriend really helped me out an incredible amount -- he was a freelancer and spent a lot of lonely days canvassing for me by himself or with one other person (usually the doggedly dedicated Trevor Kenmure!) Without my ex, the campaign truly would have fallen apart. I think the campaign became the backbone of our relationship and he took my loss harder than I did! By the time the campaign was over we were totally sick of each other.
He developed a strategy that was frowned upon by the experienced politicos but done out of the emergency of low volunteer enrollment -- we would walk in a pair and he would ask folks in the park rapid fire if they were registered voters in the neighborhood (he carried a map of the 50th AD on a clipboard at all times!) and if they said yes, he's point to them and the second person would dash up to them with our petition. It was extremely sloppy, but it worked for us. Later, I had a lot of great help from good friends taking turns as my campaign manager, but it was kind of a shit show.
How did you raise funds?
I dialed for dollars. I don't really know any wealthy people so this was a major challenge. My own parents just gave me $50, and I needed to raise thousands. This was really awkward and had me asking for money from people I hadn't talked to for many years. Sometimes someone from the pro-bono group would sit with me and make me do it because I hated it so much. I got most of my donations through events with my grassroots advocacy friends who were very generous, and small business owners who gave me donations out of love for our community.
Were you able to garner support from other elected officials?
Yes. Antonio Reynoso and Nydia Velazquez supported me publicly. I also asked Marty Needelman and a few other influential community activists to endorse me and included their pictures on my mailers.
What were some of the biggest challenges of your campaign?
Lack of visibility of the position. Also, when it came down to it, people would wish me luck but then give their money or time to other candidates running for bigger offices and I could hardly blame them. It was also very difficult because, it being an unpaid position, I really needed to hang on to my day job. I think it's really hard for someone with a 40-hour-a-week day job to run for district leader. I spent a lot of time ducking out of my office to take phone calls or beg people to volunteer. It might be better suited to someone who works nights, part time, freelance or someone who has their own business and can make their own hours. Balancing my full time workload and running for office was exhausting. Also, having Frank Seddio working actively against me was difficult -- I knew I would have to outdo the "party" vote. The amazing thing was that in most districts I did! But voter turn out was so low that the block voting beat me anyway.
How did you navigate your challenges? Would you do anything differently?
I think I would go with my gut more frequently. Too often my team was trying to do things "right" because we knew our petitions would get challenged by the Party (which they did) but we really didn't have the capacity to do things in a really great, clean, organized way. We were a lot more successful and efficient when we finally took matters into our own hands and found a way that worked for us. The position is not very sexy, it is virtually unknown but just as difficult as any other election, though smaller in scale. I got my best visibility when I started getting media coverage and mailers, which were worth every penny. I think if I tried to do it again, I would have tried to get more of that, and somehow get more volunteers. I will never forget or stop being grateful to those who volunteered for me.
Did people in your district understand the role of DL? How did you explain it?
People did not. I would tell them that they were the most local form of representation, and helped to make decisions that were invisible but extremely important, like judicial selections and special elections. However, the level of knowledge of how the system works is so rudimentary a lot of this explaining barely even helps. Telling folks how many of our electeds are chosen in special elections blew their minds. However, the most irritating part was people asking me what I thought about national level political topics and evaluating me on that when it had nothing to do with the position I was running for. You have to get really graceful responding to ignorance.
What were your biggest takeaways from your campaign?
Running for office is HARD. You have to really want it. You have to believe in it, and in yourself, to a level that I had never considered before -- It's not something you can phone in. I think saying this doesn't even really communicate it enough. You have to walk out your door every day ready to tell people (who often don't want to talk to you, by the way) that you are running and that YOU are the best choice. You have to have good and real reasons why, and tell it again and again with confidence and kindness, with real information and inspiration. I think a lot of people have an ambition to run for office because they imagine some glamour, some power, or something exciting. But the sheer amount of energy and work and relentlessness it takes is not for the faint of heart. The sexiness of telling people you are running for office will wear off quite quickly and then you will realize that you are EXPOSED, everyone is watching you and judging you, sometimes in the newspaper, and your butt is on the line -- especially if you are not a handsome white man. So if you don't really want it, you will just give yourself a massive, humiliating headache and waste a lot of money doing it. Thinking about all the thousands of dollars people were investing in me kept me up at night wondering how I could show them that their belief in me really mattered and was well invested.
Also, real human connections matter. Folks can tell when you are genuine and when you are really listening. You can trust in that.
What were the biggest surprises from your campaign?
THE MAIL WORKED!!! People cited the mail as a reason they voted for me -- people I had never met! I was also very surprised by how close I came to winning!
I learned so much from actually engaging with people, asking them questions and collecting their answers. It was a great opportunity to temperature check the neighborhood and find out what was really going on. I was able to use the information folks shared with me to come up with new ideas and energy for community organizing and tap into issues that weren't being talked about enough. Also, after I ran, I found out that I had really established a positive impression of myself to the community that I didn't know before. Even though I didn't "win," I got a lot of exposure and people still recognize me for it. I feel like more people know me and trust me now in my community and that feels great. I have also become more fearless, which is wonderful.
Knowing everything you know now, how do you feel about running?
It was one of the best things I have ever done. I hated nearly every minute of it, but it had deep meaning and real challenge. It was punishing and painful. But I worked really really hard in a way I had never tried to before. I learned about teamwork and what it means to grind. I overcame my own fears about myself and my abilities -- I found that I actually CAN do it! It took me out of my role as an armchair critic and got me to the actual physical chores of democracy, something that, once you experience, you can't forget. And I think as an activist initiative I did ultimately inspire people to think twice about who they want to represent them -- to remind them that an election is ideally meant to be a choice. Having experienced an election without patronage support, I can say I understand why the "Party" system is attractive -- they will do a lot of that grind for you. But I also can say that doing it yourself, because you really truly care about the place where you live, really means something deeper than that. When we can show people that choices exist, and that choices matter, it changes the whole way they think about government. Sometimes we do things, and we run for things, not because it's going to be "fun," but because we've been called to try to fix that which feels permanently broken, even if you're trying to mend something very small. That's significant and it feels right.