Running for a public office in Grandview Heights

Published October 12, 2016 by justicewg

Some Grandview residents have interactions with local public officials, and wonder just how a person ends up an elected council member or board seat holder. A much smaller number actively try to run for office. How does that work in Grandview Heights?

Brandon Lynaugh decided he needed to try for the city council during the fall 2015 election. He didn’t win, but got a valuable lesson is what is needed to run for a public office. I asked him questions about that run.

Making the decision to run

J.W.: How did you come up with the idea of running?

Brandon Lynaugh : There were a lot of factors that led me to run for GH city council.  First and foremost it was a desire to serve a community that my family and I have a deep appreciation for.  Like a lot of folks in Grandview, we originally came because of the school system.  Over the last decade we’ve come to appreciate the community even more and I wanted to do my part to give back to it.

While the desire to serve should be at the core of anyone’s decision to run for local office, I was also driven by an interest to give the community a choice in who represents them.  I’ve lived here a decade and never once had a candidate for local office knocked on my door.  It’s no real surprise as the previous two elections for council were entirely uncontested.  No need to campaign when you don’t have any competition I guess?  That bothered me.

And finally, I thought I had a background and approach that would be an asset to council.  It wasn’t to stroke an ego or to set up some future race for higher office as sometimes is the case with local campaigns.  I recognized that if elected, I was there to represent the interests of the entire community as best I could and I was excited by that challenge.

J.W. Did people contact you to encourage you to run?

B.L.: I probably have talked about it with friends and neighbors for a couple years, but nothing too serious.  It wasn’t until I worked on the last school levy campaign did I start to think I might make a go of it.  But the final decision came after a porch visit by a longtime friend/neighbor.  I’ve told a lot of people that it was a combination of civic pride and a little red wine.

J.W.: Was the paperwork easy? How did the petition to be placed on the ballot go?

B.L.: The process can be a bit tedious.  Depending on whether you intend to raise/spend campaign funds the first thing you need to do is file a designation of treasurer with the Franklin County Board of Elections.  You’ll then need to collect fifty valid signatures from registered voters in Grandview Heights.  I think I collected about one hundred to be safe.  Every year there are stories of candidates that fail to make the ballot because of errors with their petitions.  The Board of Elections does a good job of instructing candidates on the do’s and don’ts, but it was still nerve-racking to turn them in.

Other than getting certified for the ballot, the big paperwork requirements are campaign finance reports and an ethics/financial disclosure form that all candidates and elected officials have to fill out.  The disclosure form is designed to prevent conflicts of interest.  The campaign finance requirements include pre-election and post-election filings of every dollar raised and spent.  Sounds like a hassle, but once you get the hang of it it is fine.

Finding the Guru

J.W.: How did you learn about the specifics of running for council in our city? Did you consult with people who had run in the past?

B.L.:I spent a lot of time at Luck Bros. and Stauf’s the summer before meeting with former and current Grandview Heights elected officials.  Mostly one on one, but occasionally with Emily and Ryan who were also running for council.  I met with most of the current school board and the two challengers, the current mayor and a former mayor and a number of former council members including one former council member whom after we met announced he was again running for council.  That was awkward as I shared some things in confidence that in hindsight I shouldn’t have.  To then see it shared with some of his followers was particularly telling.

J.W.: Was it difficult to find these people, and get them to tell you important actions that needed to be done for building up publicity and a positive public perception of your run for council?

B.L.: Not at all.  We’re such a small community that if I didn’t have a direct relationship it wasn’t difficult finding someone who did and was willing to make an introduction.  Everyone was very accommodating and enjoyed talking about their experiences as an elected official and the campaigns that got them there.  Since I ran with two other candidates as a slate (Emily won while Ryan and I lost) there weren’t necessarily apples to apples comparisons to previous campaigns, but a number of common themes came through.  As challengers to longtime incumbents, the importance of shoe leather cannot be overstated.  Knocking on a stranger’s door is not something that comes naturally to people, but you have to do it if you’re a first time candidate.  You’ll find that residents love talking about Grandview and it was the thing I enjoyed most about the campaign.  Civility is also incredibly important, especially at the local level.  This doesn’t mean you have to agree with what your opponent is doing, but you should be civil about it.  After all, win or lose these folks are your neighbors.

J.W.: What were you told about the amount of money that you would need to spend for your campaign?

B.L.: It really was all over the place.  While I was a first time candidate, I’m not new to politics or campaigns so I wasn’t surprised by what anything cost.  The cost of a campaign is a function of a number of factors.  Are you an incumbent or challenger?  Do you have a large volunteer base that can help you drop literature?  Are you able to spend ample time going door to door yourself?  At a minimum, you’ll need to pay for some yard signs and some literature and that will cost you at least $1,000 (yard signs are expensive!).  I heard stories about past campaigns that hired campaign managers and conducted polling…yes, polling.  Alternatively, I heard stories about old fashioned retail politics and handing out chocolate bars going door to door.

J.W.: In the past, candidates have spent as much as $10K on runs for the board and council, do you think that having that much money to spend on a run is important?

B.L.: Totally depends on the environment.  It is essential?  Absolutely not.  But fundraising is a part of campaigning at any level.  Voters expect to receive some information about who you are and what you stand for.  Supporters expect to be able to put a yard sign up and sport a t-shirt around town (I just saw a friend at a softball game wearing one of our shirts and had a good laugh about it).  Rival campaigns will buy ads in the Tri Village and you’ll be compelled to do the same.  You’ll also want to send a piece of mail to folks that vote absentee and that can get costly.  Campaigns can become costly and candidates have to be comfortable with asking their friends, family and neighbors for financial support.  It helps get them invested in what you’re doing and it puts the necessary gas in your tank.

Running as a Slate

J.W.:  You made a voting slate with Emily Keeler, and Ryan Longbrake, all of your election signs and pamphlets showed the three of you as a group. How did that choice to run as a slate come about?

B.L.: Ryan and I have known each other for years as our daughters are good friends.  We were introduced by a mutual friend to Emily who was also considering a run for council and started meeting together to talk about our approach to the race and elected office should any of us be successful.  While we each had our differences, there were a lot of common themes that came through in those early meetings.

For one, we were all relatively “new” to Grandview Heights…all within the last decade or so.  We each stretched financially to make it work in Grandview Heights in large part to provide our kids with a better opportunity with the schools.  This is something most residents can relate to whether or not they moved here five of fifty years ago.  So that desire to give back to the community for what it had given was shared by all three of us.

In addition to some shared interest in maintaining the city’s character, walkability and bikeability, the issue of preserving Grandview Heights’ economic diversity was something all three of us are passionate about.  We have the highest percentage of rental properties of any of Columbus’ suburbs and that helps to create a level of economic diversity in Grandview that is essential to the identity and culture that we have here.  Providing a voice on behalf of maintaining that diversity is important as the city tackles tough development, budget and tax issues in the future.

Finally, there is the simple fact that we were all first time candidates up against three incumbents and one former council president that led us to team up.  The nuts and bolts of running a campaign were shared amongst all three of us: fundraising, volunteer recruitment, yard sign locations, door to door efforts.  There were efficiencies created with the slate that made the nuts and bolts easier to manage.

J.W.: How do you think the slate run worked in your favor? How was it a problem?

B.L.: For the nuts and bolts, the slate was very effective.  We did everything we wanted to do from a campaign perspective.  We collectively knocked on nearly 2,000 doors, we had a tremendous volunteer base that helped drop literature or wear our t-shirts at the Ox Roast, etc.  We raised enough money to do everything we needed in regards to mailers etc.  We actually had funds left over that we donated to the Steve Hall Memorial Fund.  And on election night, Emily was one of the top vote getters so that was a great outcome.

That being said, the slate approach presented a number of problems in this past election.  First, it created an impression that there was some kind of veiled agenda or that we were of one mind on all issues.  We got that question quite a bit on front porches across the city and it was a legitimate question to raise.  The result was that the first thing we needed to talk about with voters was why we were running together as opposed to why we were running in the first place.  Once we spent time with folks and explained the rationale and purpose they were comfortable, but that took some time.

Second, there was the issue of name id.  Name id is one of the most important issues in non-partisan races and we had the inherent disadvantage of asking voters to remember three names versus one when going into the ballot box.  I had a number of voters on election day who I had spent time on their porches come up and ask “it’s Ryan right?.”  I’d reply with “It’s Brandon, but I hope you support Ryan as well.”  That’s not reason enough for why one loses, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

On a less serious note, I had always joked that I would never run for office because I have a horrible “ballot name.”  There is an element to the “name game” that occurs with non-partisan races.  It’s why you see so many judicial candidates with names beginning with “O.”  O’Donnell, O’Neil, O’Conner to name a few.  I can say with near certitude that I am the only Lynaugh that anyone in Grandview Heights has ever met.  There are three of us in the entire state and we all live on Avondale Ave.  Point being, I wasn’t picking up any freebies with my tough to pronounce, never seen before, obscure Irish name.  For those curious, Lynaugh is the Anglicized form of Laighneach, which is Gaelic for “Leinsterman.”

J.W:  Do you suggest it for future candidates?

B.L.: I wouldn’t.  Unless there is a groundswell for wholesale change at city council, then a slate might make sense.  With that said, I don’t have any regrets about the decision.  While I’ve pointed out some of the issue with running as a slate, the reality is that in a tightly contested race with essentially four incumbents running, Emily was one of the top vote getters.  In that respect it was a success.

Walking and knocking on doors

J.W.: Knocking on doors and talking to as many residents as possible is always mentioned as the best way to gain votes. Do you agree?

B.L.: I do, especially for first time candidates.  Unfortunately, the practice has fallen out of favor in council races in recent years.  I asked just about everyone I talked to going door to door when the last time a council candidate had knocked on their door and I had one person tell me “maybe twenty years ago.” I think this is mostly the result of a lack of competition in council races.  Regardless, if you’re going to represent the best interests of all of our city’s residents you have to be proactive and go out and talk to them.  People lead busy lives and they can’t always be expected to attend meetings or even compose e-mails to council members.  Future candidates should commit to getting out into the community and being proactive in soliciting input, especially from neighborhoods other than their own.  I hope our campaign’s commitment to knocking doors will encourage future campaigns to do the same.  Once you get the first couple out of the way, it will come more naturally and you’ll see how valuable it is for public service.

J.W.: Do you have any funny stories about talking to people? Were there any hostile or threatening encounters while standing on porches?

B.L.: I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some interesting encounters, but certainly nothing hostile or threatening by any means.  If you’re walking on a Sunday and the Browns are playing, your bound to run into some folks that aren’t too keen to talk local politics and you should avoid walking during big Buckeye games.  The only encounter that really sticks out as negative is the gentleman on Timberman who looked me right in the eye and said “I got one question for you…are you a Christian?”  I told him that I was, but for whatever reason he didn’t find my answer convincing enough and he preceded to lecture me on a whole host of topics.  I said I would still love to have his support on Election Day and told him to have a nice day.  I don’t know who he voted for.

The most important advice I can give to avoid any negative encounters is to be respectful.  A “No Soliciting” sign really does mean that the residents don’t want to be solicited…for anything.  While you’re there to introduce yourself and hopefully earn a vote, the voter gets to determine how long that conversation goes.  I typically started by introducing myself as a candidate for council and then asked “have you followed the race this year?”  That gives the voter the opportunity to either engage you in a conversation or say they’re not interested.  And if they’re not interested, you need to wrap it up and move on.

J.W.: There are various clubs and groups in Grandview that are supposed to be important in gaining votes, joining or speaking before these groups has been done by other candidates. Did you do this? Which groups?

B.L.: The local chamber of commerce and League of Women Voters sponsored a candidate’s forum that we all participated in.  There were probably only about a dozen people who attended that weren’t either friends or family of the candidates, but it was something that you needed to do.  We also all pulled shifts at the Ox Roast (2 hours of defatting meat!) as did a good number of our friends/neighbors who wore our campaign shirts.  And we hosted a couple events on our own including a “meet the candidates” mixer sponsored by some of our supporters.

So I don’t know that we joined groups specifically to get entree to their members.  We joined the Touchdown Club early on thinking we might try some campaigning outside football games, but we decided against it recognizing that most people didn’t want to talk local politics at the game.  Our focus was more on trying to meet as many folks in the community as possible through our door knocking and coffee meetings.  I always asked folks I met with if they wouldn’t mind introducing me to a couple of their neighbors.  I think we’re a small enough community where that can be effective.

Although Lynaugh didn’t win, he made himself a recognizable presence in Grandview, and will have a better chance in a future election. He can console himself with the fact that he got more votes than at the time current council member Ed Hastie (who barely had a campaign).

Running for office in Grandview will cost you a significant amount of time and money. Even if you lose, it can be a valuable experience that connects you with new people in the community.

We need better choices than are offered in many elections with no opposition to the candidates who run. I hope to see more elections in the future with real choices for voters.

Big thanks to Brandon Lynaugh for answering my questions. Mr Lynaugh is the owner at Battleground Strategies, LLC

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