Nuts & Bolts—Inside a Democratic marketing campaign: Mayors matter

Direct impact comes first

I’ve long noted in this series that most campaigns focus on three points: One that is attainable quickly, one that will be harder but is possible, and one that is lofty and long-term. This allows the campaign to get early accomplishments, potentially build another accomplishment, and make a case for re-election while having lofty goals still in a much closer view. At that point, new items can become part of the big three campaign issues.

Mayoral races that succeed look at issues with deep and direct impact. This is where we get into the three-tier mayoral system in America. Most people think a mayor is just a mayor, and everything is the same. Nope! In the U.S. there are three usual ways most mayors come to office; there may be more, but I will acknowledge I don’t know all the particular nature of every community’s election structures. The three basic types of mayoral selections are:

  • Strong mayors. Strong mayors are elected directly by the people, in a ballot box vote. They have a direct say in the practices and expenditures of a city or township, and the ability to stop or start projects. This is something that you see most in smaller communities.
  • Weak mayors. Weak mayors are elected by other members of the city council, and it is just a title; this is more common in mid-sized cities.
  • Mixed mayors. Mixed mayors are elected by the people, but the council votes on and approves a city manager who handles almost all duties. While elected as an executive with more power than a council member, a mayor in a city where the city manager is appointed by all is weaker than the city manager. The city manager as a responsible role has a much larger impact the larger the city becomes.

With this in mind, how do you cover the issues that matter to the people you need to elect you? Well, I want to cross off one before we start: this diary isn’t about a weak mayor. Getting votes in a small city council setting is normally about forming a small city voting block to determine the outcome and is an interpersonal matter that combines with slates to get into office. That is not something that comes with the kind of campaigning we focus on in this series.

When you are running as a strong mayor, the first step you have in building your campaign is to come to an issue study of your community. By attending your city meetings, school board meetings, and county meetings, you can build an issue profile. Find three issues you see as having the most immediate impact. Once you have those, talk to friendly elected in the city council, county, and state government.

When you come out for your campaign, having energy and focus means that you have the ability to hit the ground running. The more time you are explaining issues or giving long-winded answers, the tougher your race will be. Keep it simple. The more upfront work you do in understanding means you can give a broad brush that shows you want the issue, but when you need to meet directly with individual voters or in a forum where people need to know you come across as polished and prepared. This allows you to feel more confident.

Campaigning at any level is hard

One of the most misleading things I hear from campaign training is how much more difficult campaigns are in bigger races. I disagree with this. There are only so many hours in a day to campaign, and a well-run campaign at any level is putting maximum work into every day. There are no more hours to generate. When you are running for an office like a strong mayor in a population 25,000 community, you would think fewer voters would make things easier. It doesn’t. Instead, it means that you have to work harder to identify voters who can shift to you because your margin of error is thinner, and your ability to have seasoned staff around you just doesn’t exist because your campaign can’t afford five staff members to take on those duties.

Knowing that your campaign will be difficult can be daunting, but it should be a comfort knowing you aren’t alone in this experience. 

Be your own mayor — an ambassador

If your town or city elects a strong mayor, a weak mayor, or a mixed-mayor, the one role that any mayor has is community ambassador. In that role, a mayor has power that is unique. Mayors can help bring in business, promote programs and help connect citizens to resources. These are powerful tools a mayor has in communities big and small. These tools allow some mayors to take action that gets them real attention—as former “Mayor Pete,” now Secretary of Transportation, can illustrate. how the tools of working with people as an ambassador for a community can pay off in building up your community and the strength of the Democratic efforts you leave behind.

Next week on Nuts And Bolts: We’re back with a “What If…”

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