The education of Nick Fish
Sure, you need money, but it helps if you know the acronyms
With high hopes, I gathered my friends and family in Grant Park last June to announce my candidacy for the Portland City Council. Naturally, it rained.
Three short months late r, after one of the most intense, challenging and rewarding periods of my life, I received 18,500 votes in the special election. I placed third in a field of 16, one spot short of the runoff. What did I learn?
They won't vote for you if they don't know your name. Few voters actually track the issues at the center of a campaign. If they've heard your name, you're halfway to earning their vote. At the outset of the election, few voters had heard of Nick Fish.
The candidate with the most money usually wins. If you don't start with name recognition, you can always buy it. In our race, Randy Leonard raised the most money, followed by Serena Cruz, myself and J.P. Moss. And how did we finish? Randy, Serena, me, then J.P.
Unfortunately, candidates spend too much time raising money and not enough time meeting voters. Public financing of campaigns won't cure this problem because unless we amend the Constitution, wealthy candidates will always be able to opt out and spend their personal riches without limit.
Endorsements can only take you so far. Newspaper endorsements, good coverage and a long list of supporters prove a candidate's legitimacy and help with fund raising, but they do not decide an election. For example, Ron Saxton and I both were endorsed by The Oregonian and both finished third in our respective races for governor and City Council.
Voters won't learn much about the issues from the news. Sixteen candidates ran in our special election Ñ quite a challenge for reporters. To give us all 'fair' coverage, they could include only the shortest sound bites from each candidate. Other stories fell back on covering the horse race: Who's winning? Who's raising the most money? Few stories covered issues more than superficially, and few reporters challenged candidates' claims. Local television news simply ignored our race.
Voters won't learn much about the issues from the candidates, either. Portland has more than 294,000 registered voters. In our race, the campaigns focused on fewer than one-third of them Ñ those we call '4/4s' because they voted in each of the last four elections. We bombarded these voters with mail and recorded telephone calls.
To be heard through all the clutter, campaigns endlessly repeat high-impact, low-content, poll-tested phrases, such as: 'Nobody works harder for schools' or 'Fighting to bring jobs to Portland.' Is it any wonder so many people tune out campaigns? (I didn't have a poll in my campaign, which was more a sign of a first-time candidate's uncertain budget than a stand on principle!)
People can, and will, ask about anything. The first question of the first debate led to questions of how proposed stream protections would affect the black-and-white crappy. I knew a lot about city issues, but I wasn't sure if the crappy was fish or fowl. By the end of the campaign, I had the answer (it's a fish) and had learned many more details: about business recruitment incentives, off-leash dogs, membrane water filters, sit-lie and SROs, PGE, PFE, PERS, FPDR, the BIT/BLF, TMDLs and CSOs. My best advice is gather smart people around you and learn fast.
Never forget the Republicans! (Or the independents.) We elect city commissioners in nonpartisan elections. In Portland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1, most candidates still treat a City Council race like a Democratic primary. We tried a different tack, building a coalition across party boundaries. No one party has a monopoly on good ideas.
A supportive partner is your best asset. My wife, Patricia, a PSU history professor, served as my researcher, substitute speaker and founding member of my kitchen cabinet. An embarrassingly large number of people told me she should be running for office instead of me!
Vote-by-mail is tough on candidates. In my race, ballots hit the mail Aug. 30 and were due by Sept. 17. For 18 days, I felt like Bill Murray in 'Groundhog Day.' Each morning when I woke up, it was Election Day! Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to cast my vote at the polls. We have sacrificed too many civic rituals in the name of 'reform.'
Campaigns are 24/7: exhausting, nerve-wracking, humbling. They require enormous energy and stamina, pose hardships on family life and interfere with such mundane pursuits as making a living. However, the 'prize,' the opportunity to serve the public through elected office, is worth the sacrifice and more.
Randy Leonard ultimately won the runoff and will become our next city commissioner. I wish him good luck.
As for me, don't be surprised if you see my name on the ballot in 2004!
Attorney Nick Fish lives in Northeast Portland with his wife, Patricia, and daughter, Maria.