Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
A Different Kind of Campaign
Ted Williams III
By Ted Williams III
April 20, 2015
“You lost because you didn’t use the information I gave you about your opponent. Remember, as I told you, in politics nice guys finish last.” These were the words from a political mentor and friend as we discussed why my recent campaign for the Chicago City Council came up short. He went on, “If you had spread the negative information we had, we could have gotten the incumbent’s numbers down, but you chose to run the campaign without doing that.” His words stung. As we talked, what had initially been a point of pride for me now made me feel foolish. I thanked him for the conversation and hung up the phone.
Was he right? Was I simply a naïve little fish swimming with the sharks in Chicago politics? Is it impossible to run an effective campaign while bucking the traditions of the approach to politics in this country? And then there is the larger question for Christians: How can we engage with political campaigns as both citizens and candidates?
In American politics, a few things consistently win elections. Money, negative campaigning, and ingratiating one’s self with the right kingmakers in the process typically help to move the numbers. While elections are about inspiring people and sharing a vision, connecting with thousands of voters requires the ability to move your message in a strategic and aggressive fashion. In a city like Chicago, these “tools of the trade” often mean removing people from the ballot, discrediting opponents, and receiving troops and money from the established political gatekeepers. Even our current president, who for many represented a new approach to politics, used some if not all of these tactics during his days as a Chicago politician. I was warned that winning in this city would be tough if I chose a different approach. Consequently, my recent campaign proved to be a graduate seminar on the challenges facing our democracy.
A Different Approach
When I started my quest for the Chicago City Council, I was excited about running with a different vision, not only for my local community, but also for the election. My team and I spent many hours crafting an approach to the process that was forward thinking, grassroots, and innovative. As someone who’d spent years serving in ministry, I desired to bring the Christian ethic of service and humility to a process that often rewards self-aggrandizement. My faith gave me a tremendous sense of optimism. For over a year, I committed myself to personally knocking on hundreds of doors, speaking at every possible forum, and appearing at every community group, police beat, and block club meeting that I could. I was energized by the countless people with whom I spoke as they shared their frustrations with the past and their hopes for the future. Their stories about moving to a middle class community years ago only to experience the process of urban decay were sad yet invigorating. They shared about their sacrifices to pay mortgages, send their children to college, and retain a safe and vibrant neighborhood as they saw it decline over the years. Each one of them fueled my personal mission even further. Every day as I talked with them, I gained more hope about what was possible in politics with a commitment to the right principles.
Unfortunately, I discovered that change in politics requires more. Defeating a sixteen-year incumbent proved more difficult than meeting people and sharing great ideas. Because incumbents in American elections have significant name recognition, campaign cash, and the ability to peddle favors and influence, beating them requires substantially more than being an optimistic community member. To mount a seriously competitive campaign requires the “three m’s” of American politics: money, media, and mobilization. Although we spent thousands on yard signs, robocalls, and direct mailings in our race, we were seriously outmatched in these areas and struggled to gain name recognition. The incumbent sent ten times as many mailings as we did, was able to staff the polls on Election Day more substantially, and benefited greatly from official events like the mayor bringing President Obama to the ward just four days before the election.
Through the seven public forums we had, I made a point of focusing on the differences in issues. While this seemed a fair approach to me, a few political insiders advised me that I was too nice. As a Christian, I often struggled with how to address direct challenges to the incumbent’s record. If I focused on it too heavily, people would accuse me of being negative or visionless. If I ignored it, I would be accused of being soft and ineffective. So I tried to strike a balance between addressing the reality of a community of 60,000 residents with high crime and minimal economic development, and being a visionary. These points were made without directly attacking any of my opponents, although I did not always receive the same courtesy.
I often asked myself how Jesus would respond in this situation. How would he deal with political opponents? Although there were many opportunities to take direct shots at the incumbent’s reputation, rumored scandalous behavior, and sources of campaign contributions, I chose not to do so. Would Jesus have done the same? I am not completely sure, as he effectively juxtaposed a message of love with stern rebukes for the Pharisees.
However, I made the decision not to attack my opponents for two reasons. First, I believe that politicians often get too much credit for a community’s progress and too much blame for its failures. While our ward suffers from a variety of social ills, I recognize that some issues are larger than the aldermanic seat. To suggest otherwise would be disingenuous. I tried to hold the incumbent to account in the areas in which his voting record and decisions caused direct harm to the community. However, I wanted to focus primarily on the holistic nature of our community’s problems and a vision for the future. Second, I understand that hope is a much more powerful emotion than anger. Anger may cause action in the short term, but Scripture teaches that only faith, hope, and love are eternal. In my public appearances, I wanted to inspire love for our community, faith that conditions could improve, and hope in a new vision. Negativity towards the incumbent would have detracted from this goal and would ultimately have been more damaging to the people I pledged to serve.
A Different Vision
Chicago’s 9th ward contains some of the city’s poorest, deadliest, and most environmentally polluted neighborhoods. Like many urban areas in the nation, these communities have suffered from a lack of investment, a changing economy, and the mass exodus of middle class families. Simultaneously, however, many people here have great pride in their homes and blocks. They have invested in their neighborhoods and want to see growth and change. The diversity of needs and urgency for solutions to problems made messaging for the campaign a unique challenge.
The major dilemma in running for public office is striking the balance between tangible action items that are within the purview of government’s authority and larger institutional questions that cannot be reduced to campaign pledges. I found that crafting a vision that engaged various institutions without overpromising was difficult because most voters want immediate solutions to their parochial issues. For instance, struggling urban areas often face a tragic combination of economic disinvestment, a decimated family structure, and violence. Short-term solutions based on sound bites would suggest a few simple answers to these problems. However, exploring these questions in a deeper way requires acknowledging the instability and inequality intrinsically connected to capitalism, while also addressing the cultural issues that exacerbate the problems of violence and the weakened family structure. In this way, there are no easy political answers.
While government can be a significant resource in fixing these issues, institutions like businesses, block clubs, and families often thrive with little or no direct government influence. Confronting larger long-term dilemmas while communicating in a way that addressed residents’ immediate needs required a great deal of thought. It meant that I would have to think outside of the box and promote positions that were more transformative than what many desired to discuss in our local election. I embraced this challenge wholeheartedly.
One of the efforts of which I am most proud was my support of the Illinois Coalition for Political Reform’s Fair Elections Referendum. I was the only candidate in my race, and one of only a handful of candidates in over fifty campaigns in the city, to support this effort. The Fair Elections Referendum was an effort to introduce public financing of campaigns. Although the referendum gained minimal support from city candidates, 79 percent of the electorate voted for it. This referendum reflects the kind of systemic change necessary to reclaim our broken democratic process. It was important to me to include this conversation in a local campaign that often focused strictly on issues like economic development, local schools, and red light cameras. In response to those needs, my platform also included the creation of a local business incubator to stimulate small business growth, a resident-based advisory board for the use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) dollars, an elected school board, arts-based youth programs, term limits, and a moratorium on a local red-light camera program.
A Different Hope
Many people have asked me why, as a Christian, I would want to be involved in politics. They see the morally compromised nature of our current process and have a lack of respect for politicians, associating them with false promises, special interest influence, and selfish ambition. Yet the very soul of democracy depends on the Christian influence. From the beginning of our nation’s history, Christian thinkers framed bedrock democratic ideals. As the power of the gospel has transformed lives in a variety of arenas, the political realm is no different. God’s word is a force that has and should continue to impact the public debate and influence the ways we make laws in this nation. People of faith provide a witness to the world, displaying love for humanity, compassion for suffering people, and respect for people with whom we disagree. By displaying Christ’s love, humility, and selflessness, Christians can change the shape of politics in this nation.
Politics is a worthy cause, and one which I am more fueled to pursue after this experience. I teach my students that we are all involved in politics in some fashion, whether we recognize it or not. As citizens, we are connected in many ways and make political decisions that impact others daily. Direct government involvement through pursuing elected office is one way to exercise our social responsibilities to one another. But there are others. What I realize now more than ever is that government is but one piece of what makes a community work. While it is the most well-resourced organization, it cannot replace other vital institutions like the church, family, small businesses, and community organizations. The change needed in our nation requires a diversity of actors committed to a new approach to politics that stresses civility and community while understanding that true solutions require all of us. We are all responsible for creating a process that holds the government accountable for the things only it can provide, while recognizing our own responsibilities and opportunities for social change.
When we pin the totality of our societal hopes and fears on the government, we ensure that the political brokenness I experienced in my campaign will continue. An omnipotent government is one that is difficult for citizens to influence. However, when we understand the healthy role of local institutions and individuals, we empower ourselves to effect change. This is the only way to secure the future life and health of our democracy. For citizens to influence the political process, we have to invest ourselves in making these changes. Maybe then nice guys won’t have to finish last in politics.
Questions for Reflection:
1) Is it possible for Christians to be “successful” in American politics? Should they pursue elected office?
2) Are the goals of God’s kingdom compatible with the goals of the US democracy?
3) How can Christians make a unique contribution to the political process?
- Ted Williams III is a Professor of Political Science in the City Colleges of Chicago
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”