One Big Idea

The Big Question

2012 state rep candidate Mark Binder offers lessons from the campaign trail


Year after year, we, the Rhode Island electorate, find ourselves asking the same questions: These guys again? Can’t we throw these bums out?

The big question is how do we get some new people with fresh ideas into office? We asked Mark Binder, because we thought he might have a few things to say. Running as an independent with little to no name recognition and even less money, he managed to mount a formidable challenge against one of the three most powerful people in state government, Speaker of the House Gordon Fox. And he almost won too. Almost.

An idealist would say, "Run because you want to make a difference. Don't worry about anything else."

That said, running for office sucks. And running for office is great.

The first thing you need to know is that you have to have an ego bigger than the State of Rhode Island. You have to actually believe that you are the right person for the job. Are other people more qualified? Probably, but they're not the ones running. You are.

The second thing is that unless you're willing to be part of the machine the deck is heavily stacked against you. Heavily.

Members of parties have both money and "legitimacy" (which are tied together in the minds of many in the media). They also have experience, existing organizations and a herd of followers who will vote the party ticket (or against the opposing party) no matter what. I don't have any advice on how to join the party system. Show up.

I ran as an independent because I knew that I'd be slaughtered in a primary run. I was lucky that there was no Republican in the race. Even so, many people assumed that I was a Republican – even though many of my proposals were to the "left" of Gordon Fox.

When you start your race, you should assume that nobody in the media will care or give you more than a moment of airtime or a line of print. You have no track record, no funding, and no support.

During my first race, (against Patrick Kennedy, who I ran against because he had just voted for the war in Iraq) a reporter told me that the reason money was so important was because it was measurable. In other words, they can't measure word of mouth or good feelings. The can say, "You've only got $200? You're not a 'serious candidate'."

Getting publicity in my case was easy. I was targeting a sitting Speaker of the House who had made some massive mistakes. I called attention to these and voila, publicity.

Find issues that are positive and attack your opponent. Yes, you can be nice and run a positive campaign, but you'll get almost nothing in the way of "free" publicity. That said, you also need to give powerful reasons for people to vote for you, not just against your opponent. It also helps to be likable.

I also got plenty of negative publicity when enemies of the Speaker jumped on board and used my campaign to slam my opponent. This became an opportunity for my opponent to accuse me of violating campaign finance regulations. I had nothing to do with these, but I'm still waiting for the Board of Elections to clear my good name.

Politics is dirty largely because so many people's jobs are at stake. Whose jobs? The staff at the State House. The people who are hired or fired. Political consultants. Media buyers. Lots of people get paid in a campaign.

The only person who doesn't get paid is the candidate.

More on getting noticed: The best thing to do is to start knocking on doors early. If you don't enjoy walking and talking with people, don't bother running in Rhode Island. People respond positively to a handshake, smile and conversation. You'll also get to know your neighbors. Assume that people aren't paying any attention to your campaign. You'll need to start from zero with every conversation. This is called the 30-second elevator speech. If possible have several, because you'll probably get bored saying the same thing over and over again.

You also need to ask for money and volunteers. I hated this part, and did it poorly. If you want to ask for money or volunteers, get someone else on board right away who can do this. You'll need to send out fliers, print handbills and so on. I was lucky enough to have a campaign staff who volunteered. These were pros who came on board because they wanted to help the campaign, not because they were going to get paid.

The final thing you should know is that no one in politics seems to have a sense of humor. When I tried to make jokes on the campaign trail, they were poorly received and then later used against me by my opponent. (For the record, no, I never really believed that a soda tax would solve our economic problems. Duh.)

You need the following to keep going:
1) A clear goal about what you're trying to achieve. If you're just making a statement, then do that. If you're trying to win, which I was, then you have to kick butt.
2) Get a campaign manager who you promise to listen to. Mine called me every day and said, "Get walking."
3) Raise money so that you can do the mailings and media buys.
4) Take breaks. When I took off my campaign button and my campaign hat, I was "off duty."
5) Be prepared to be attacked. Be prepared to counter-attack. If you only play nice, or if you're attacked and take a high ground, you will get 8-9% of the vote.
6) Ask for supporters to be public early. Nobody is on your side until they come out publicly and say so. You can have conversations with people who will say that they support you, but until they write a check or agree to host an event or send out an email in your name, you can assume that they're being courted by the other side. Just before the election, the entire Democratic Party machine turned out to back my opponent. They even flew in Patrick Kennedy.
7) Listen to the constituents. Don't change what you're committed to, but understand where they are.
8) Plan on winning.

The worst thing about running for office was the attacks on my character. I deeply resented it when the Democratic Party passed out lies about my campaign. I hated being falsely accused of violations. I also found myself lying awake in the middle of the night worrying about the issues and what was at stake if I won or lost.

The best thing about running for office was meeting so many people in my community. My view of this district expanded, and I got a lot of smiles.

The day after the election, people immediately started telling me, "You should run again."

I say, "Thanks. Please contribute $100 for the campaign."