How to Run for Office with No Money and Little Experience

If the presidential election left you wanting to be more politically engaged, you're not alone.

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Dec 23 2016, 3:20pm

All photos Matt Hummel

Matt Hummel wasn't a complete political novice when he ran for City Council in Oakland, California this year—he's worked on a few local campaigns and serves as chair of the Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission. But he was far from a traditional candidate. Forty-six-year-old Hummel lives with roommates in a former boarding house above an Oakland convenience store and works mainly as a handyman and carpenter. While he failed to win the seat, he learned a lot about city government bureaucracy and running an outsider campaign on a shoestring budget. We talked to him about what it feels like to watch election results roll in when you're on the ballot, what he learned from the process, and how concerned citizens can direct their feelings of political unrest at the local level. Here he is, in his own words.

I decided to run for office after getting fed up with a, to my mind, dysfunctional city council. After hearing rumors the incumbent [Rebecca Kaplan] in the at-large position wouldn't have an opponent because she'd already nailed down all the major endorsements, I could no longer sit on the sidelines. I realized you could use the campaign season to get issues pushed. I never actually thought I could beat Rebecca, although you've got to run like you can. Just before the deadline to file to run, three other candidates jumped into the race.  

I've been chair of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission for a few years now, and we worked on rewriting all the city ordinances. I started realizing that council members often don't know all the details of what they're talking about—or are lying. You have this idea that they're technocrats that have more information than you and that you should just trust them. Then you learn better.

Part of my interest in politics comes out of a realization I had living in warehouses in East Oakland in the 90s and early 2000s, and having this communal experience that was just thriving and powerful: The underground is bullshit and elitist if it stays underground. We have to push our ideas out beyond that.

During that time, [California Governor] Jerry Brown was doing the same thing in Jack London Square in Oakland. He'd created his own intentional community. I volunteered and then got hired for Brown's first Oakland mayoral campaign in 1998 and found that I was really good at it. It all just came easily to me and I felt really alive. In 2007, the California state Democratic Party hired me to run the Oakland headquarters of Obama's campaign. 

To run for city council, first I had to come up with the three or four hundred bucks to even be allowed to have the paperwork. Then a friend from UpRise.org helped set up our website, and we got our donation button working. After that, I was in it. I figured the public was going to take me somewhat seriously or not. 

I was told by my former mentor that even if I raised $20,000, I'd make a fool out of myself, that you need at least $100,000 to run a city-wide campaign. Ultimately, I raised just over $5,000. I probably spent a thousand bucks of my own. I didn't want to raise a bunch of money—I wanted to prove that you could do things without the money. The newspapers never perceived me as a contender because of my lack of substantial funds, which was frustrating because that was part of the point.

Since we didn't have money, we focused on what I did have: a fancy mustache. We used a mustachioed icon, the Monopoly Man, someone recognizable and already imprinted on everyone's brain, on our campaign materials. It was perfect. We made a bunch of posters and t-shirts based on the "poor tax" Chance card featuring the Monopoly Man shrugging discouragingly with his pockets emptied. For a long time I'd been complaining about the fees and fines levied by the city onto people who can't afford them, and how these people don't feel legit, that they feel they are less than citizens.  

The message picked up steam, and the campaign became a full-time thing. Between all the questionnaires we filled out to get endorsements, and questions that demanded long, in-depth answers, I started basically writing essays every day of the week for a few months. The day-to-day consisted of going to a lot of forums. We had 20 candidate forums all over the city to field questions, and hear ideas and perspectives.

Would-be city council member Matt Hummel

I got the Alameda County Progressive Voter Guide endorsement and the Green Party endorsement, and felt some momentum toward the end of the campaign. Up until the East Bay Express didn't endorse me, I began to think I had a real chance. In the last few weeks of the campaign, all the candidates except Rebecca campaigned together at the BART stations. We all ended up liking each other.

On election night, it became clear pretty quickly that Rebecca was going to get the 50 percent she needed to win. I had this thing in my head where I needed to get over 5,000 votes just to feel like I didn't blow it. I got just under 12,000, or about seven percent of the vote. 

After I lost, I got caught back up at work and eventually got back on my feet financially (I just paid December rent two days ago).

One thing I learned, though I kind of already knew, is that I really like doing this. It's odd when you do something that takes all your energy, but also gives you more than you think you had. When you realize what it feels like to grasp something with your heart, your life changes. It kind of reminded me that it's really rewarding to go for something. I've been thinking of running again. My 12,000 votes means that now I can actually be perceived as a real thing, which is kind of cool, considering I was told time and again I had too little money to play in the game.

On some level, everyone that voted for me would be pissed if I didn't run again. They come up to me and say, "We'll get this next time" and that kind of stuff. I don't want to run just to run, but if it feels like I can make a difference, and if the campaign itself can be its own movement, then I'm game, for sure.

Follow Jessi Phillips on Twitter.

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