What makes someone a good candidate for public office? I hear this question a lot, and the answer is: It’s complicated.
Most voters initially look at the candidate’s character and “world view.” Is the candidate someone of integrity who, if elected, will not lie, cheat or steal? And, do they generally support my “world view” (values, ideology etc.)?
If the answer to the first two questions are yes, then it is on to question #3: Are they electable?
My personal belief is that everyone is electable IF … if they work hard enough, if they raise enough money, if they get others to help them, etc., etc.
But the reality of winning a campaign is that it is hard. Convincing over half the voters in your district to place an “X” next to your name on a ballot is hard, and it is personal.
One very important factor is length of residence and degree of community involvement in their district. Someone who has grown up in the district has an inherent advantage over someone who has only lived there a short time. Those who “parachute in” (move into a district simply to run for public office) are often perceived negatively by long-term residents who will push back against the newcomer. Some districts are more transient than others, and thus potentially more forgiving and supportive of a bright newcomer who shows up and wants to represent them. But areas with more stable populations will immediately ask the defining question, “What high school did you go to?”
A history of community involvement in the district and a history of prior leadership positions are also good indicators of electability. Prior involvement in school government, the local neighborhood association, canoe clubs or other civic organizations are good and positive indicators.
Has the candidate been generally successful in life up until now? Do they have a career? Have they started and run a business? Do they have a college degree? None of this is required, but they all indicate whether the person is a doer or simply a talker.
To sum up the basics: Good candidates have roots in the community, have held positions of leadership in the past, and have reputations as doers.
Beyond the basics, a good candidate must be able to relate to people from all walks of life. Hawaii’s diverse population means that no single demographic is sufficient to win an election. Candidates must be able to traverse ethnic, gender and socio-economic lines, and genuinely connect with people throughout their district. Good candidates must understand that it is not about their own priority issues, it’s about the issues that are important to the people in their community.
You cannot be a single-issue candidate, and you cannot (both literally and figuratively) have a purple mohawk. Even if all of your friends have purple mohawks, there are not enough of them to win.
If you have some deep dark secret you are afraid will come out, I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is yes, it will come out (and the sooner the better).
The good news is, for local and state elections, it doesn’t really matter. I would not worry too much about run-of-the-mill youthful indiscretions or other bad choices you may have made 10 or more years ago, and even felony convictions can be overcome assuming the candidate has served their time and learned from their mistakes.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a candidate who wants to win must be able to convince others, in a very short amount of time, that they are “running for the right reasons” and that they are worthy of the voter’s trust and support. The fundamental question of “Why are you running?” will be asked again and again, and the candidate must be able to genuinely connect to the voter when answering.
We need more good candidates to run, and 2018 will be a watershed year at all levels.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was a majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control during the administration of Gov. Neal Abercrombie. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is the volunteer executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.