Columnist Chelsea Kline: Keep it local, keep it kind, make it inclusive

  • In this April 2018 photo, Chelsea Kline, then a candidate for state Senate, drops off nominations papers with Hatfield Town Clerk Lydia Szych. gazette file photo

Published: 10/7/2019 9:29:41 AM

Even though the latest national news is seemingly ratcheting up by the hour, we can’t forget that it’s also local election season again!

For many of us, that means planting lawn signs, knocking doors, donating money and, of course, hopefully voting.

But it also means that some of your very brave and bold neighbors are shifting gears after working harder and more publicly than they’ve probably ever worked before. For those awesome humans who made the leap to run, some are moving on to the next stage beyond the primary election to the general, and some are catching their breath and wiping away a few tears as they absorb the reality of their loss.

Either way, win or lose, it’s not easy. Winning a primary often means even more work, more campaigning, even more daily grinding. But for those who lose, it can feel like running full speed into a brick wall. It can be painful, embarrassing, shocking, with maybe a little relief mixed in, and a whole lot of profound bone-deep exhaustion.

That exhaustion varies, depending on the candidate and the particular challenges they faced. Whether the individual is an extrovert, introvert, working in a district rife with deep-seated issues, struggled to fundraise because they lacked the “right connections,” the list of possible stressors is infinite. From what I’ve seen, no matter the unique challenges, running for office is insanely hard.

Aside from the nuances of the candidate and their race, there’s one common thread that makes running so very difficult. By and large, many of us have lost our ability to debate or converse, and elections can make people uneasy. Political conversations are complicated and emotional and many of us are somehow unable to follow a roadmap for how to have these types of conversations in a productive, respectful and dignified manner.

Elections naturally inspire debate, urging us to wrestle with big questions and hash out potential solutions. Yet, an awkward tension exists within our current culture which has us set up to be either quietly siloed or pitted against one another. The candidate is often at the center of that discomfort, and often acutely feels the discord between people’s desire to delve into deep conversations and their lack of skill or understanding of how to actually do so.

One of the ways that this avoidance of meaningful debate transpires is in the way that many people seemingly forget that candidates are actual humans. We perhaps hope to avoid discomfort by expecting our elected officials and our aspiring electeds to be functioning above or outside normal human parameters.

We want our saviors to have all the answers in addition to looking, behaving and thinking flawlessly while they’re at it. Perhaps a preoccupation with seeking the illusive perfect candidate and obsessing over their superficial aspects is more about people’s unwillingness to engage in substantial debate more than anything else.

I was encouraged to seek elected office by countless people before I actually ran, but I wasn’t fully warned about how uncomfortable I would make other people feel, and how painful it would be to lose.

Of course, there’s a risk of scaring people, especially women and marginalized people, away from the idea of running, but the realities of running and losing need to be talked about more, because blindly encouraging people to throw everything they have into something as all-encompassing and intense as a campaign isn’t ethical. To be fair, many of the people who encouraged me hadn’t ever actually run themselves, which is precisely why I feel responsible for sharing more of my perspectives.

Moreover, running for office isn’t a fair system that’s actually inclusive, and even when marginalized people do manage to run, there’s countless invisible trip wires that prohibit them from getting elected. We must keep encouraging women and marginalized people to run, but pair that with firmly showing up and helping them to campaign.

We must work to make the process of running and winning far more accessible for a much wider swath of Americans. It’s truly inexcusable that running for office is really only possible for an elite few, and that our representation doesn’t actually represent how beautifully varied and diverse we really are.

So while the drama out of Washington continues to scream for our attention, I encourage you to strike up conversations about local issues and candidates, listen compassionately to your neighbors and make conscious efforts to step outside your silos on the local level.

Please remember that candidates facing an election right now or who just came through a primary (win or lose) could use a kind word or gesture from you. Remember in your conversations that most of us are just humans who are doing our best (regardless of policy ideas, party, or any of that).

Running for office is expensive, scary and takes tremendous energy, connections, and chutzpah (that’s Yiddish for courage and moxie mixed together with a little swagger for good measure). Of course, there’s privilege baked into the concept of who can even run or not, so let’s work on a more inclusive system, and now empathize with the few that dare to make the leap; they took the time to try and make our local communities better, to inspire dialogue, to lend their hand in fixing the problems that they’ve noticed, and that is nothing short of awesome.

Chelsea Kline (she/her pronouns) is the executive director of End of Life Choices New York. She is a graduate of both Smith College and Harvard Divinity School.

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