When you’re a hardcore introvert and, as one friend has described me, “a bit nutty” about privacy, the last thing your spouse and friends expect you to do is run for public office.
For most of my adult life, I’ve been blissfully unaware of what goes on in the city where I’ve lived for twenty years, and even before the 2016 election, I had largely tuned out from the polarized nature of national politics. But for a variety of reasons in 2018, I started attending city council and plan commission meetings, and I didn’t like what I saw. The alder representing my district, in particular, seemed to have an attitude toward her constituents that varied from dismissive to downright insulting, particularly if we dared to ask her any questions.
I started to investigate more closely exactly what the governance of my city looked like — and that eventually led to me running for public office. As an introvert, it was hard, but not as terrifying as I thought it would be. Here’s what I learned, and why I believe more of us “quiet ones” should do it.
I Wanted to Have a Say in My City’s Decision-Making
I live in a Wisconsin city that might best be described as a bedroom community, as it shares a border with the state’s capital, Madison. The population is 21,000 and growing fast. It consists of eight districts, with eight corresponding “alders” or council members, who meet twice a month to rule on issues such as zoning laws, ordinance changes, and more.
I’d never been aware that our city had ordinances or what they were, so I had a lot to learn. I began by watching council meetings and reading the minutes of the city’s various committees. What I learned is that one of the prevailing narratives in my town is that there is plenty of money in the community, and we should certainly spend it on the best of everything. That narrative doesn’t really work for me, as I don’t have a lot of money myself.
I also deeply believe that divisive class issues are harming our communities; I see it in this, my hometown, in how much money some people have to spend on their children’s lavish birthday parties, while many other kids in town qualify for reduced-price and free school lunches. I began to feel that I wanted to have a say in my community’s decision-making, with a definite emphasis on how to make access to the city’s amenities and resources more equitable.
So I ran for the office of Alder for District 3 of Middleton, Wisconsin.
I lost (433 votes to 310).
My Heart Was Pounding as I Went Door to Door
But I’m not sorry I ran. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And yeah, I’m disappointed that I lost, because I think taking part in council meetings would have been easier than campaigning. My spouse also takes privacy seriously, so when we discussed my running for office, we decided that I would only do so if I ran a “take no money, spend no money” campaign. That way I wouldn’t have to start a separate bank account, file extra paperwork, or find a campaign treasurer.
I was able to avoid asking people for contributions, but I couldn’t avoid asking them for their support. Simply to get my name on the ballot, I needed to collect twenty to forty signatures of residents in my district on nominating papers. Luckily I’ve lived in my neighborhood for a long time, and my kids attend the nearby school, so I knew my community.
But for an introvert, it was a leap from knowing someone well enough to say “hello” during walks to and from school to asking them to write their name, address, and signature on official legal papers. And as difficult as that was, the next step was to go door-to-door to meet voters. My opponent had official roadside signs and a treasurer; I had a homemade yard sign and a stack of brightly colored flyers (they were my only expense; I spent twenty dollars, all told). So if I was going to win this thing, I was going to have to win it by talking to people individually.
I procured a list of registered voters in my district from the city clerk’s office, and one cold Saturday afternoon in February, I set out to ring doorbells. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that as I stood in front of that first door, I nearly had a heart attack. I had my short introduction ready and written at the top of my clipboard, but I was so nervous that I had no idea what was going to come out of my mouth if someone actually answered the door.
Luckily, no one did.
But they did at the second house, and although they didn’t want to talk, they did listen to my pitch and kindly took a flyer. I wish I could tell you it was easier after that. It wasn’t. There wasn’t one single day when I went out canvassing that I didn’t have to talk myself out of a panic attack first.
It helped that so many people were so much nicer and more interested than I would ever have expected. Several people asked me into their homes to talk at more length. Some took my contact information and actually emailed me later to ask questions. One lovely resident even talked books with me when he learned that I used to work as a librarian.
In all, I ended up passing out more than 600 flyers, either by talking with people or tucking the flyers into their doors.
5 Reasons Introverts Should Run for Public Office
Campaigning wasn’t easy, but it was also not as terrifying as I thought it would be. I lost, but I’m more convinced than ever that introverts need to make their voices heard at all levels of government — and maybe someday I’ll try again. Below are five reasons introverts are needed in the political process now more than ever.
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1. We tend to be very good listeners.
When I first considered running for local government, I did so at least partially because my neighbors and I were appalled at how little we felt our elected representative understood our concerns or was even listening to us on the most basic level. If listening is indeed the “truest form of hospitality,” introverts could help all citizens feel more welcomed into political processes.
2. When something matters, we’re not afraid of dissent.
While watching my city council “debate” issues, I was struck by how often votes were unanimous, with or without discussion. There’s something to be said for harmony, but there’s also something to be said for the importance of dissent, and how even the act of asking questions can help groups to make better decisions. And introverts are really good at asking questions.
3. We have different methods — and strengths — than extroverts.
Research has shown that there truly are differences between introverted and extroverted brains. If politics lends itself more easily to extroverts (and anyone who has ever campaigned would tell you that it does), then it stands to reason that, even though it may not be a natural fit for us “quiet ones,” introverts could bring very different thought processes and strengths to politics.
4. We do our research.
One neighbor who told me she would vote for me also told me she liked the way I did a lot of research on city subjects, and made her “feel smarter” on certain issues. I did that because I love to read, as many introverts do, and I love to do a deep dive into subjects I care about, like traffic patterns and how they affect resident safety in my city.
5. We usually only speak when we have something meaningful to say.
Anyone who has ever sat through an endless public hearing or work meeting would appreciate a council member or city resident who doesn’t grandstand at the podium. I’ve now spoken at a few public meetings, and I always try to keep my communication short and to the point. It’s not all about shorter meetings, but there’s no doubt that residents might be better able to keep up with local events if they didn’t have to set aside multiple hours a week for needlessly long meetings.
Introvert, running for public office may not be easy, but it’s incredibly important. Attend meetings. Speak your mind. Run for office. Just because your voice is quiet doesn’t mean you can’t use it to make a difference for everyone.