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Roundtable: Local Political Organizing

Christina Couch | December 30, 2022



The Power of Local Politics


Two weeks ago, the Skywoman community heard from newly elected Corinne Morse (pictured left) and Candidate Jordan Applewhite (pictured right) on their experiences in running for district seats in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Corinne was drawn to Skywoman after listening to one of Sylvanaqua Farms’ videos where Chris Newman, owner and operator, was expressing the timely need for more involvement in local politics, especially if we are to make effective adjustments to our own food systems. After connecting with both Jordan and Corinne, it was clear we had a lot to learn from their recent campaigning experiences.


This roundtable session emphasized the need for greater involvement in local politics. Not only to advocate for government-led solutions that affect challenges like food insecurity on a systemic level, but also to prevent the introduction of damaging legislature. Jordan shed light on the recent movement towards hyper polarization in policy. They emphasized how we all have a role to play in informing ourselves, and our neighbors, about opportunities in our local governments. For example, library trustees may have been perceived as a “boring” position to hold in the past, but now there are national movements to capture these seats and implement political agendas, such as banning books with LGBTQ themes. These positions are so easily seized because people are unaware of the influence these duties can have on state-level decision making.


Chris explains how none of the moves we wish to make through food sovereignty projects can exist if we do not have the right people successfully taking positions of power, supporting this work, and pushing the necessary legislation through. It can feel intimidating or difficult to get into politics as things are becoming increasingly polarized at the federal level. But it was clear in Corinne and Jordan's messaging that the more local you get into politics, the more practical and accessible it becomes.


We hope through this piece you can better understand the power of town, county and state-level positions. Maybe you will find yourself feeling more comfortable taking that first step to participate or support your nearby candidates. After all, these local levers are just as important, if not more so, as those at the federal level.


About Corinne


Corinne Morse is the newly elected State Representative for New Hampshire’s Grafton 9 District, a smaller area with a collective population of 5-6,000 people across three towns. For reference, the population of Grafton county is 90,000 as a whole, and for the entire state of NH, 1.389 million. New Hampshire is unique because their state house is made up of 400 representatives, making it the third largest legislative body in the world after the UK Parliament and the US Congress.


After the recent overturn of Roe V Wade, Corinne spent some time contemplating how to best take care of her neighbors and felt an urgent need to get involved in local policy earlier this year. She approached the process thinking she would knock on doors for whichever candidate was running for the Grafton 9 District seat. However, after learning that no Democrats stepped forward she took matters into her own hands and ran for the seat herself.


Corinne has always been somewhat involved in pushing for local legislature by calling her state representatives and sending letters, but this past year was her first experience running for a seat, and now holding office. The amazing part - she has only been a NH resident for four years. Demonstrating how quickly she was able to form connections and earn the trust of her neighbors.


Her campaign platform focused on:

  • Mitigating algal blooms and bacteria in drinking water through the Town Lake Association

  • Advocating for reproductive healthcare

  • Supporting public schools

  • Expanding broadband

  • Pursuing solar power and community power to reduce energy costs


Through her recent office seat, Corinne is now eligible to sit on the county executive council and lend her perspective to budgeting & decision making for Grafton County. Having that power at a local level means influencing conversations on handling crime, food safety, power distribution and other issues that may be often overlooked but really keep the town running.


About Jordan


Jordan Applewhite ran for the Grafton 1 District seat, comprising six towns and about 5,000 voters. They focused on clean energy, fair housing, public school funding, and affordable childcare. The seed for involvement in local politics was planted after Jordan read the book “Politics is for Power'' by Eitan Hersh. Here he distinguishes between obsessive news watching/rage tweeting, of which he calls political hobbyism, and what it actually means to do politics by acquiring seats and taking positions of power.


It all started when Jordan reached out to county officials with an interest in supporting the neighborhood on voting day. Through this involvement, Jordan met a myriad of folks, including those who maintain voter roles. The town was seeking a young person to train as an assistant and through these newly established connections, Jordan was quickly appointed. That role eventually transformed into a full fledged supervisor position, one that Jordan will have to formally run for in the near future.


Amidst additional networking, Jordan connected with a local democratic committee and learned that Grafton was having a redistricting year, meaning an extra seat would be open for Grafton 1, and so they ran for it. Although Jordan did not win this election, the process was still a wonderful learning experience and we are very grateful to follow along as they reflect on their campaign and plan for future elections.


Starting Small and Getting Involved

Being successful in these races begins with starting small and acquiring positions of power that some may consider to be lower hanging fruit. For Corinne, this meant starting out in her local school district as a member of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and an alternate member of the planning board. The alternate member position was granted to her after a vacancy opened up and her colleagues kindly appointed her. Corinne plans to run for this seat again come March.


For Corinne, being involved in decision making for public schools is more than just holding a seat of power, it’s about advocating for the services that public schools provide to her son and other children in need. More specifically, her son receives Autism support at his public school, which has been life changing for Corinne and her family. However, New Hampshire is pushing for a voucher system that will privatize schools, taking away the public school services her son depends on. Protecting children in these situations is a huge priority for Corinne and she emphasized the importance and impact that PTA involvement can have on the lives of young students and their families.


Jordan says the secret ingredient for starting out is to just show up and get your foot in the door. Even if there are incumbents making their way for those seats already, support their campaigns and find a way to get involved. This is a beneficial way to build good will, connect with political stakeholders, and meet your neighbors.


Launching a Campaign


One of the main messages of the roundtable is that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel for launching a campaign. There are institutions and technologies ready to support potential candidates every step of the way, you just need to take the time to make these connections.


In New Hampshire, getting onto the ballot requires 15 supporting signatures, or a $2 fee. To start this petition, begin by visiting the locations where you know the most people. Do you have children in school? Go to PTA meetings and begin connecting with parents and teachers. Involved in any community groups? Share your ideas out loud with fellow members. One signature will likely snowball to a surprisingly immense level of support. Talk to town administrators, police departments, fire stations - any town-supporting organizations.


For Jordan and Corinne, the Democratic Victory Campaign Committee (DVCC) was a huge help with financial support, compiling lists for knocking doors, and mentorship. They both leaned on mentors to navigate the uncertainties of campaigning. Corinne had about four to five folks supporting her through the process and today, works closely with a mentor who is now on her 22nd term - that is 44 years in office! Mentors can be found through local town chairs and organizations like DVCC and Run for Something.


Additional campaigning resources include:

  • Action Network - tools for raising money, mobilizing voters, and organizing supporters through events and volunteer work.

  • EMILY’s list - political action committee that aims to help elect Democratic female candidates in favor of abortion rights to office.

  • Progressive Turnout Project - largest voter contact organization in the country rallying Democrats to vote

  • National Council of Independent Living - grassroots organization run by and for people with disabilities to represent and advocate for their human and civil rights across the US


Fundraising


Both Corinne and Jordan raised between $5-6,000. These funds went towards signs, cards, and literature to spread the word about their campaigns. It is of value to fundraise as early as possible so you can produce the materials needed and then just get out there to start doing the work!


Jordan recommends applying for county endorsements at the start of your campaign. Take the time to develop answers to the prompts. If nothing else, it is a helpful exercise for generating future talking points. Jordan was awarded $1000 from both County and regional Democrats. The truth is, these groups are really good at fundraising for elections, let them take some of the weight off.


Jordan also recommends creating an ACTBLUE account which is a fundraising platform to support Democratic candidates. You can share your campaign across social media platforms, linking your ACTBLUE, and folks who align with your cause will donate directly. If you can get outside organizations interested in your campaign some will even write you a check just because they care about democrats having control of the State House.


Social Media


Although social media helps around the margins, it will not win you an election. Both candidates emphasized the importance of focusing on face-to-face interactions because they are far more effective than any written or electronic form of communication. Twitter was a useful tool for both Jordan and Corinne to learn about other local politicians, the policies and organizations they are working with, and how they are getting the work done. Keeping a pulse on local policy also informed and elevated the relevancy of their conversations with voters.


Adapting and Adjusting Your Campaign


When Jordan started campaigning six months ago, they were much more of a “firebrand”, but quickly adapted to more of an empathetic listener, especially to people who may have opposing beliefs. Being able to hold space for folks to speak their mind is important, even if you have different values.


For Jordan, maybe they were the first Trans person a potential voter has ever had a conversation with. It is about hearing your neighbors out and then working to remove the barriers that falsely represent the qualities and beliefs of a Democrat, or in Jordan’s case, a Trans person. Voters of the opposite party will almost always have predetermined opinions against you, but Jordan recognizes this is likely rooted in their own trauma or hardships - speaking with them is a form of healing and can maybe kickstart a reframing of these beliefs.


The Influence of Knocking Doors


Knocking doors is the number one action that both Corinne and Jordan preached as being absolutely essential to the success of a campaign. Speaking with your neighbors really humanizes your campaign, shows you are willing to put in the effort, and lets your neighbors feel heard. Jordan believes this is where the true healing in our country is going to happen.


Not having children meant Jordan was very in the dark about the state of public school funding when they first started knocking doors. The beauty of this process is how effective knocking doors can be in revealing blind spots in your campaign. Knocking allowed Jordan to receive feedback, understand the full breadth of the issue, and formulate how the local government can better support children in public schools moving forward. Amazingly enough, public school funding quickly became a key message in Jordan's campaign.


Jordan and Corinne recommend leaning on technology and tools to make the most of your time and resources. Jordan used the MiniVAN canvassing app to input a list of local voters, of which their Democratic committee defined based on their specific criteria. The app will map out which houses are most effective to knock and the interactive and color coded features allow you to plan your route efficiently. The app providers voter information so you can approach the conversation already knowing the resident’s name, age, and party. You can even record the results of the conversation in real time for referenc in the future.


Corinne’s approach was a bit different. She used a site to first identify how many people voted in the last six elections and then started with the strongest democrats who voted all six times. She felt they were a great starting point for knocking doors - likely nice and clearly supportive of the Democratic party.


Approaching Unregistered or Independent Voters


Jordan did not implement any strategy for tackling unregistered voters and chose to avoid targeting this group altogether. The alpha voter list does not even include unregistered voters, so it would be a process of elimination to determine which homes are not on the list. It was too big of a time commitment. Instead, Jordan targeted doors of independents who might not vote at all unless someone shows up and speaks with them. Direct voter-candidate contact is the single most important thing for getting people to show up and vote.


Corinne spent some time focusing on republican voters in town that she already knew and asked them to spread the word about her and her campaign. If folks were actively Trump supporters or had anti-Democratic signage outside their homes, she chose to avoid that door. However, if she did approach, the best messaging to encourage trust and an open-minded conversation would be “Hi, I’m your neighbor” rather than “I’m a democrat running for office.” Chris pointed out that conservatives can warm up to “liberal agendas” because even though the media may portray agenda items as 50/50 issues, they are more like 80/20 issues in reality. The challenge is that the 20 side has a bigger megaphone and a lot of money backing their voice.


Expectations and Time Commitments


Running

The months spent running for office are intense and require you to be out knocking doors every weekend. The challenge is, you want to get folks when they’re home, which is usually on the weekends, which means sacrificing time that you would be home yourself. As a mother, this meant Corinne missed an entire season of soccer practice for her daughter alongside other family gatherings. However, this sacrifice for one summer every few years is justifiable for the importance of the work.


Elected

The time commitment slows down immensely once you are elected. You can either (a) only show up to meetings when you must be present for voting or other committee requirements or (b) try to climb the ladder through heavy involvement, such as joining smaller committees that get together more frequently and do a lot of work. The bare minimum commitment is likely once per month.


Keep in mind, town government is a lot less of a time commitment than state government. Take that into account when deciding how your availability may affect your ability to follow through on your promises. Additionally, being on the select board holds a lot of weight in decision making, and it pays more.


Lessons Learned


Listen First and Be Yourself

Jordan is exhausted by the blame game of partisan campaigns and hopes to spend less time projecting their platform and more time understanding the true needs of the neighbors they hope to serve. Jordan says “don’t be afraid to get personal and don’t hide behind your issues. People want to know who you are and your story, talk about your struggles and your dreams.”


Don’t Underestimate the Strength of Networking

A lot of races are won or lost by the margins, under 2%, and there is unfortunately no one lever you can pull to make you win. For example, Jordan knocked 1,000 doors, way more than Corinne knocked, and still fell short of votes. Even if Jordan knocked two times the amount of doors, this still would not guarantee a victory. They recommend looking at the candidates who won to identify their characteristics, platforms, and better understand the factors that may have contributed to their success. For example, the person who beat Jordan out of the seat lived in a district containing the most populated towns, naturally allowing them to draw in more voters.


Take Advantage of Offered Help

In the future, Jordan will enlist more help and knock twice as many doors. This might sound like a lot, considering they knocked on 1,000 already, but they emphasized the difference that even a handful of votes can make. A candidate in Corinne’s district lost by four votes, which unfortunately flipped the seat, all because she did not spend enough time in historically Democratic districts - the voters simply did not know her well enough.


Corinne agrees with Jordan on enlisting more help in the future. There were so many people willing to volunteer and support her campaign but she was afraid to ask for help and did not know how to articulate her needs.


It’s Never Too Soon To Start Building Connections

If you want to get involved, start making connections now. By the time that election year rolls around and you are ready to run, you will already have established relationships and folks in place ready to support.


Demonstrate Consistency When Campaigning

Corinne found that people do not like it when you change your platform or waver, and really prefer you stick to what you believe in. She felt that gaining respect from Republicans was more likely when folks could identify and respect her firmness despite their opposing views. Amazingly enough, lifelong conservatives were happy to go out and support Corinne just because they got the opportunity to know who she is and witness her unwavering support for her community.


Do Not Be Discouraged By Corruption, Connectivity Builds Resiliency

Corruption is clearly present in local politics as we see a greater push to get specific candidates elected for the wrong reasons. There is no denying that the political realm can at times be a nasty space, but if you are planning to run for a seat do not be discouraged! If you can make one strong connection and stay true to elevating your county, you can continue pushing your way into more groups and eventually build a band of support. For example, really progressive folks in Jordan’s area are running for school board in a historically red town and shockingly enough, they are winning! This is not because the candidates are trying to run a hyper partisan campaign, but because they are just advocating for good governance in support of their neighbor’s needs.


Moving Forward


Chris Newman pointed out that for food sovereignty work specifically, there is a shockingly large amount of money - we are talking tens of thousands of millions of dollars - that project owners can apply for through their local government organizations. As long as your government agency agrees to apply, these funds can be put towards almost any agriculture venture. The challenge is that we do not always have the right stakeholders in these seats of power to push for ag-focused funding. These local governments are likely run by three people, of whom were voted for by 500 people, and so the amount of leverage is huge, the potential even greater!


However, there is a lack of “how to” guides for getting involved in local politics. Chris owes this to “civics being dead in public education”. To combat this, Skywoman is aiming towards a political class of people to teach community members how to acquire positions of power. It would essentially be a roadmap for how to get to different waypoints, navigate common uncertainties, and determine which office seats to run for. By tapping into the experiences of people like Corinne and Jordan, we hope to walk you through the process of going from zero to state delegate seat in your own region.


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