Novice politicians learn on the run
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
Staples flew off the wooden stake with each mallet blow until Connie Espe's star-spangled sign dangled, then fell off.
"Well, look at that," Espe said, somewhat dismayed by the effort to put up a campaign sign proclaiming her candidacy in the 48th District House race.
Lesson one of running a political campaign: Make sturdy signs.
Lesson two: Do it fast.
Running for Legislature for the first time isn't about debating today's hot topics. Forget traffic gridlock and teacher pay. Instead, get your name in front of people until they see it in their dreams.
And do it early, with the hope of overwhelming the competition.
Like all rookie candidates, Espe and her Republican opponent, Rodney Tom, had to grasp that quickly. "At this point, it has nothing to do with issues," Tom said. "It's the sad truth of politics."
Each election, hundreds of people slap down a $328 filing fee to run for state Legislature. More than 250 did so this year, running for an available 122 seats. Most are babes in the political world, unknown to voters and often even their own political parties.
Tom and Espe are both neophytes, running for Position 2 in the Eastside's 48th District race, which also includes Jeff Jared, a Libertarian who has made several bids for elected office.
The two newcomers started from scratch, learning the basics of calling strangers for contributions, making signs, printing brochures, winning key endorsements.
It's an eye-opener for them, an inside look at entry-level, mainstream politics that leaves any dreams of glamour in the dust and reveals a whole lot of grunt labor.
Why they do it
Tom is 39, a lanky man with graying hair, an easy smile and a quick wit. A real-estate agent who drives a Land Rover and owns a home in Medina, he connects easily with people and knows it. "Most people, when they meet me, like me," he said. He has two young children.
Tom said he's running for the Legislature because he's tired of partisan bickering.
"Most people just want the issues solved," Tom said. "They don't care if it's a Republican solution or a Democratic solution. They just want a solution."
He has no illusions of getting rid of partisanship in Olympia. But "hopefully, one person at a time, maybe we can change the system."
Espe was laid off in April after working 20 years in the high-tech industry, most recently as a project manager. She drives around in a Honda Civic.
She is 50, with red hair and blue eyes, a master's degree in biology and an MBA. She and her husband live in a middle-class subdivision near the shores of Lake Sammamish. They have four children — two grown boys, a daughter in college and a 14-year-old son at home.
For Espe, the idea of running for office came up when two sisters filed as candidates for the state legislatures in Maine and Texas.
Espe thought she might work as a volunteer for the Democratic candidate in her district but discovered Rodney Tom didn't have an opponent. That convinced her to send in the filing papers.
She doesn't have ready-made answers for her desire to become a legislator. Espe is so new to politics that even routine questions can give her pause: "Why should you vote for me, well let me see ... "
After giving it some thought, Espe said she wants to provide a voice for the poor and undereducated.
"There are people out there whose voices are not being heard."
Raise lots of money
Deciding to run is the easy part.
"The first-time candidate, the biggest mistake they make is they really don't know what they're getting into," said Paul Berendt, chairman of the state Democratic Party.
No one knows who you are. And, except for family and a few friends, there's no one to help. "You're thinking, coming into it, there's this big party machine and you'll get thrown into it and just ride the wave," Tom said.
Parties try to get the basics across by hooking rookies up with veteran politicians, putting on campaign schools and suggesting consultants, if candidates have enough money.
The same basic message is pounded into all newbies: Get your name known. Raise lots of money. And be prepared for grueling hours.
Espe bemoans long days campaigning, shuttling kids and taking care of household chores. Sometimes she gets home at night "and I just want to sit there," she said.
"I feel very harried," Espe said.
The primary kept the pressure on. She spent election night sitting in front of a computer hitting the reload button on her Internet browser. Both she and Tom were unopposed, but potential campaign contributors look at the results when deciding whom to back. Espe got 39.5 percent of the vote compared to 53 percent for Tom. Jared, the Libertarian, got 5 percent.
Tom and Espe had a different vision of running a campaign. They thought it would be a more thoughtful race, interacting with voters, debating the issues.
Instead, running for office looks more like factory work.
"Never heard of you"
Case in point: Door-to-door campaigning. Candidates call it "doorbelling," and it's considered one of the most important, and time-consuming, parts of running for office.
"We tell every candidate to doorbell," said Chris Vance, chairman of the state Republican Party. "And every candidate says they will. But very, very few really do it."
For doorbelling to make a difference, he says, candidates need to hit 10,000 homes. Tom plastered a campaign sticker on his lapel recently and set out in an older Redmond neighborhood marked by cracked asphalt and lots of U.S. flags.
"Who are you opposing?" demanded a gray-haired woman who warily propped open her screen door. "Connie Espe," Tom said.
"Never heard of her," the woman said dismissively. "But I've never heard of you either."
Still, she took his brochure and saw his face. Tom says he hits up to 40 homes an hour when he's in the groove. To date, he's visited about 3,700 homes. Espe estimates she's gone to more than 1,100 homes.
"The key is to keep moving," said Vance. "Never, never go in somebody's house.
"You don't know why they want you in there. You don't know anything," he said. "Even if they don't have ill intent, it slows you down."
Tom skips hard-core Democrats. He also skips people who don't vote, walking past several houses in a row.
"If they're not going to vote, why bother?"
The hunt for money
For both candidates, asking for money is the most unpleasant part of the campaign.
Raising $50,000 is considered a good base for running a credible campaign. Expenses regularly exceed $100,000.
"We tell candidates it's going to cost $150,000, and they almost pass out," Vance said.
In reality, he said, the party and affiliated political action committees (PACs) will pick up most of that in targeted races, if candidates can prove they're viable. Which means raising up to $30,000 in seed money.
"I send out letters to people I don't know asking for money," Espe said. "You don't want to ask for money for nothing. You don't want to ask for money period."
"It's just intimidating," she said. "Not many people will put themselves out there to raise money like that. And at the end of it you might have nothing."
Tom has a big lead in the money game, having raised almost $30,000 in cash, according the latest state Public Disclosure Commission filings. Espe has raised only about $3,500 in cash, according to the PDC. She's also received about $9,400 in "in kind" contributions, mostly from the Democratic Party for consulting and a mailing.
Image is important in the hunt for money. Tom started buffing his with a campaign kickoff breakfast.
"Your campaign kickoff breakfast is huge," he said. "A lot of the lobbyists that you eventually get money from, they kind of want to see who is this guy. Is he real. Usually they are looking at kickoff campaigns. They want you to have over 100 people."
Tom spent days preparing, constantly calling. He got 120 people to show up. Espe did not start off her campaign with an event, in part because she got a late start, but Espe also says she wasn't aware of the importance placed on kickoffs.
"That's a good idea," Espe said, when told, shortly after she filed to run, that many candidates start off their campaigns that way. "Maybe I should do that."
Answer questions, get money
Another gatekeeper to money — especially from lobbyists and political action committees — is the questionnaire. Candidates are inundated with them.
One example of a question, from the Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound: "Rent control has proven to be a failure wherever it has been instituted nationwide ... Do you oppose rent control?"
Once the form is turned in, candidates may be called in for interviews. Afterward the PACs decide whether to contribute money. Although the questionnaires can open the door to money, they also can be used to hold legislators accountable once in office.
Espe is seeking money from PACs, but the whole thing makes her uneasy.
"When you get involved in it, you say, 'Wow, this is a lot of work and a lot of stress, and there is a lot of potential here for mischief ... (of) trying to trade votes for money.' "
Tom says he doesn't believe money has tremendous influence.
"They are not buying a vote; if anything they are just buying access," he said.
He's open about seeking money from PACs, even those he doesn't agree with, such as cigarette-maker Philip Morris, which contributed $550 to his campaign.
"I never would have taken money from Phillip Morris," he said, noting that the company also owns a food-products division. "But, one: I know it's not going to buy anything. And two: You need the money."
Tom sees each endorsement as money and support that Espe won't get. "A lot of this is a chess game," he said.
Espe is starting to understand the game, but it's been a steep learning curve.
"I've talked about politics all my life with my family, and yet I know so little."