What Becoming a Politician at Age 21 Taught Me
"You don't have a shot, but you never know where thunder might strike." As I sat in a meeting room visiting with a prominent business man in Nashville who I was begging money from, his words resounded in my head. Sitting in my chair, I recalled sitting in a cafeteria at school 10 months earlier and wondering what it might be like to run a full-fledged State Legislative campaign so that I could make my voice heard in an effort to better the quality of education in Tennessee. As I spoke with the businessman, it all started seeming much more real, and the realization of the moment both terrified and excited me- me being an introverted first generation college student from a rural town who has yet to even fly on an airplane. Here I was in a fancy office being taken seriously and rubbing elbows with some of the most influential people in the state. After I rode the elevator back down to ground level, the nervousness that I held back began to quiver through my body. I drove back to Vanderbilt, changed out of my suit, and went to class. A few weeks later, and I was greeted by a large check in the mail (at least by my broke college kid standards). It was one of many that were to come over my 10-month journey that ended with me winning 32.5% of the vote. Despite the loss and the sadness accompanied with it, I firmly believe that I gained something from the campaign more important than any political office.
That weekend, I made the hour and a half drive back to Lynchburg, TN, downloaded a file full of addresses and names from the database I was using, and began my weekly routine of knocking on doors and asking people for votes. Some times, no one answered the door, but I'd always leave a cheerful note for them and some literature for them to read. Other times, someone would open the door, and I would receive generally three responses: Ambivalence, love, or hatred. Some people (probably most) don't care about politics or anyone involved, others loved me as soon as I told them what party I belonged to, and occasionally, some people were so offended by my presence that they deemed it proper to open the door brandishing shotguns or to cuss me off their property. Having few people willing to help me due to general ambivalence was one thing, but that last category of people is the group that made campaigning truly difficult.
The campaign led me into lavish mansions and skyline offices, and it led me to shacks in rural Tennessee where you will still be lucky to find cellphone service. From each person, I gained a better glimpse of the human condition. From the poor, I met some of the sweetest, gentlest people just working to scrape out a living, and I met the most ravenous people with chips on their shoulders looking for nothing but trouble. From the rich, I met some of the most genuine, engaged people, and I met some of the most deceitful, selfish people. I saw the disconnect between the differing socioeconomic classes and how the two ends of the spectrum rarely connect except through politicians like me who must beg for votes from whomever will supply them. I learned why it is so easy to profile people in our society based off of statistics rather than seeking out independent individuals within a group. I experienced firsthand how stereotypes are fueling political polarization and hatred. I learned that the world is not an evil place, rather it is uncaring. People in life are generally self-interested, and it is easier to remember the bad things that people do than the good. Yet, this knowledge taught me a greater appreciation of those who are truly unselfish and care for their neighbors. It is through these people that we will bridge the gaps that make us different and move our nation forward.
My opponent in the race was an incumbent who was older than I, and I believe he is a rare soul in our world. As I filed the paperwork to run and began doing my homework into his voting record, I began feeling a heat of anger in my soul that so many people do when they think of politicians from the opposite party. I was taught from current politicians that you must hate your enemy in public in order to make it into politics- that you must smear and slam your enemy into submission in a very Machiavellian fashion. Maybe those people are right. Maybe you must seek blood in order to win, but as the campaign began to get off the ground, I couldn't in good conscience seek blood from a man who I was beginning to see as someone who is both reasonable and generally friendly- despite our disagreements on many issues. I learned from him what first impressions and labels truly are: manmade constructs for people to seek power through grouping people's hatreds. I learned respect for all people no matter their affiliations of any kind, and I learned how to respect my "enemy" with a respect that is given even when none is received. As I sat in the local high school auditorium listening to him during our radio-aired debate, I was glad that I could have the opportunity to share the stage with him in a shared endeavor of civic engagement.
If I could, I would make every person run for office during this life at least once. An experience of that kind forces you to rely on everyone around you to accomplish your goal. It forces you to scrutinize your own beliefs (both political and religious), understand people from all walks of life, and throw out all of your fears of public speaking. Despite my loss, I have gained something much more valuable than any office: I gained a firmer love for people in my life, a greater appreciation for those trying to make a difference, a stronger personal religious faith, and a deep understanding of how the world really works. Most importantly, I learned the how both "halves" of society live and that each cannot survive without the other. If we had a world full of people willing to step forward to improve this country through running for office (no matter party affiliation), our country and the world would be a much better, loving place.