[The following was originally published on 9/9/19 and then updated 8/29/2022]
By: Lou Gale
I’m not sure who said it, but democracy is not a spectator sport. A similar sentiment was more eloquently said by Teddy Roosevelt, who said that the average citizen must be a good citizen if our republic is to succeed. What I think that means is that we all must participate in order to have a functioning democracy and presuming I have that right, I think there are two main ways to participate. You can contribute financially, donations are always welcome to candidates and public interest groups, or you can contribute your time. Running for elected office is one of the biggest ways you can contribute your time, but why would you?
First, the simplest reason I can think of to run is because you have a passion for public service. You love it. Just as one may love a piece of art or another person, you have a love for politics and elected office. There’s something about public service that will not leave you alone. Additionally, that love is intertwined with patriotism. For that love of one’s community, one’s state, one’s country, drives one to support it and serve it. How else could you unless that community, that state and that country was worth that service. Furthermore, if you seek to improve that community through public service, it may very well be because you think it can be improved and it’s worthy of that improvement.
However, that love and patriotism can lead in a lot of directions: military service, financial contributor, campaign volunteer, director of a public interest group, government employee, or any of a myriad of other ways in which a citizen can use their time to participate. Why choose elected office as your role in fulfilling the obligations of citizenship? Well, a government of, by and for the people, needs people. Someone has to take the reins of leadership and make no mistake about it, democracy is a job for all of us. So if you look at the work of a democracy and think this is something you want to participate in every day — not just election season, not just from time to time or from a distance but every day — and if you find yourself looking around at other elected leaders and thinking“I can do that” then running for office may be for you. It is a willingness to serve; a willingness to lead.
Finally, that passion for public service and a drive to serve in elected office should be layered, in my view, with a third and more complex element: whether elected office is a good fit for you. Just because you love something and you strive to be a leader doesn’t mean it would work for you and your life. Now elected office holders come in all shapes and sizes but I think there are several key attributes needed for an elected official. One is a willingness to build coalitions and work in groups. Democracy is a collective act and if you like doing things your way, well I suspect you’ll get frustrated quickly. A second is being comfortable in a crowd. You have to ask people for votes and be willing to explain yourself. You also can’t be shy about asking for help, be it financial or, otherwise. Third, I think an elected leader needs a desire to accomplish something, not just to be someone. You need a vision and principals to drive you to specific goals. That vision can help structure and give focus to what is otherwise a very broad field. Elected office can be very much what you make of it. Finally, how will it work with your family, how will it work with the rest of your life. There will probably be late nights and weekends. There will be lots of volunteering with little if any financial reward. You’re going to have to want to be there. You’re going to have to love it. And so that brings us right back to where we started. You should run because you love it. And if not you, who?
Lou Gale is an attorney, community activist, and village trustee for the Village of La Grange. In 2022, he ran in the Democratic Primary for Cook County Commissioner (17th District). He resides in La Grange, IL.