DIY: How to run for city council

By Simon Lono
Illustration by Tara Fleming

So you want run for city council?

Once you’ve decided to run, you have to have an idea. Every campaign starts with an idea—an answer to the question, “Why do you want to be on council?”

If you have no idea why you would want to be on city council, or what you want to do when you get there, then you have no business running.

Stop wondering if you’re qualified to sit on council. If you can read this sentence then you are as qualified or more qualified than the people already elected.

All kinds of people run, all kinds of people win, and all kinds of people do a good job. Democracy is a beautiful thing that way.

Make sure your family is behind your decision. You need a frank talk with your mate and family to gauge their support. Unless they give you unqualified support, you have no business running. Nothing dooms a campaign—and family—faster than a war on two fronts.

Pick the right seat
There are 11 seats on St. John’s city council: the mayor and deputy mayor are elected separately in citywide ballots; four at-large councillors are elected citywide, where everyone votes for up to four candidates; and five other councillors are elected by ward. There are about 16,000 voters, or 12,000 households, per ward.

At-large, deputy mayor and mayor campaigns cover about 50,000 or so households.

Unless you want to make a big splash right away and can’t wait to sit in the big chair, avoid running for mayor your first time out. The cheapest and easiest campaign to mount is in a ward.

Pick a campaign manager you trust and do what they tell you. There are a minimum of two jobs in any campaign—candidate and campaign manager. You can’t do both so pick one and stick to it.

Friends, effort and money
You need at least two of the above. All three are best, but you can get away with two out of three if you play your cards right.

Friends will help spread the word, assemble and erect signs, and deliver flyers.

The effort is yours. Be ready to walk the streets knocking on doors and attend every event you can. Introduce yourself and shake hands with everyone. Anywhere there are three or more voters in one place, make sure you’re there too. (Don’t forget the hand sanitizer.)

Money is always an issue. A ward race will cost around $7-10,000. Councillor at-large is more like $15-20,000—give or take. The two top spots might run up to $50,000 or more. Take up collections, run a bake sale, organise a BBQ, send out letters, ask your family and don’t be shy.

Time it right
Timing is everything with the St. John’s municipal race. Starting early is key. The city will send out the mail-in ballots around September 11, so the voting starts September 14 when ballots arrive in the mailbox. Half of all ballots are returned in the first week, with the rest trailing in until September 29—election day. Nobody pays any attention until Labour Day, so it’s a time-compressed campaign. You need to hit hard and hit at the right time because the system has a hard tilt in favour of incumbents.

Get your name out there
The main materials you need are flyers, buttons and signs. You need a flyer to pass around, to spread your name, face and idea. Keep it simple and colourful. Also, get a couple hundred buttons for you and your friends.

The most visible part of the municipal campaigns are signs. Usual sizes are 2×2 (for lawns and medians), 4×4 (for minor intersections) and 4×8 (for major intersections). Cost depends on how elaborate the design is, and like flyers, the more you order the less they cost per unit. One-colour signs are cheapest. More colours and photos drive up the price. The smallest, simplest signs might go for as little as $2.50 each, while elaborate 4x8s might be $75 to $100 a unit. Keep them simple and colourful, so they stand out. If you can’t read a sign travelling at 60kph then it’s just another part of the landscape.

Forget radio ads, TV ads and print ads. Unless you have lots of money to burn, signs are more cost-effective.

Media will mostly ignore you because they ignore almost every municipal candidate. Don’t expect long television interviews with David Cochrane earnestly asking about your garbage policy. Your best media hit will be calling talk radio—make sure you do it to the limit.

Political party
Plan a party for election night. Don’t drink until after the media comes calling for reaction. If they do, be sober and gracious in victory. In defeat, be even more gracious; the people are always right.

Win or lose, it’s time to celebrate your induction into the select group of human beings with the heart and dedication to put your name on a ballot. Congratulations!

Simon Lono is running for councillor at-large in the upcoming September St. John’s municipal election. His favourite curse words are “shagger” and “shmoe.”

4 comments

  1. Lionel West · December 13, 2010

    It was with interest I read Simon Lono’s article on “How to run for city council” (The Scope August 13 – 27)

    As a candidate in the upcoming St. John’s municipal election, I find Simon’s comments enlightening. While I agree with many of his points – ideas, family support, councillor position first, friends, effort, timing, profile and messaging – I feel there is a need to provide a perspective on the money issue.

    Any potential candidate reading this article could be deterred by the costs Simon estimates for running – Anywhere from $7,000 to $50,000+, depending on the council position. Not everyone has these kinds of resources to throw at a municipal campaign. It is a barrier to our democratic process. While spending this amount of money on a campaign may enhance your chance at success, it will not ensure electoral success. Indeed, there is many a candidate who has spent these kinds of amounts and not gained a seat on council.

    In my first run at a council position I spent approximately $500 on my campaign. This was to cover the costs of printing a brochure. I did not have signs. My result was 36% of the vote in a two-person race. (Ward 3 against incumbent Keith Coombs). My reasons for spending this amount of money were: I had very little profile, I was new to the city and I was running against a well-established incumbent. My intention was to get my name out there and let citizens know that I was serious about being a representative on council. Yes, I wanted to be a councillor, and would have been ready to take on the job if I had been elected, but I had to keep a realistic perspective on things. If I had spent $5,000 I’m sure I would still have finished second.

    A perusal of St. John’s municipal elections shows that it is very difficult for a first-time candidate to be successful unless the candidate has a very high profile or the seat is vacant.

    What Simon’s letter does for me is highlight the need for electoral reform in municipal politics. Our system favours the incumbent. They are the ones who avail of media coverage and maintain a profile through the weekly telecasts of council meetings. Name recognition is a large factor as a voter peruses the ballot sheet.

    It is time to look at the funding of campaigns and/or placing term limitations on council positions. An option would be to set low maximum expenditure limits on campaigns. Rather than allowing the current maximum of $80,000 for a mayoralty campaign why not drop it to $5,000? The city could sponsor debates and/or avail of time on media outlets including community television or the Newfoundland Labrador Legislative Television channel to provide an opportunity for candidates to debate and promote themselves and their ideas. It is a sad indictment on our democratic process that the ability to raise money or to have money determines the outcome of the electoral process.

    Why not place a term limit – say 12 consecutive years – on councillors? Application of term limits on elected positions is common throughout the democratic world. This would ensure turnover and opportunities to infuse new blood on council.

    It is time for us to have this discussion in the hope that it might lead to more people being able to plan a party for election night!

    Lionel West
    Candidate – Ward 3
    St. John’s

  2. Elling Lien · December 13, 2010

    It’s funny to say it, but I’m REALLY looking forward to this election.

    Thanks for your comments Lionel.

  3. Geo · December 13, 2010

    I want to run for city council in, Dallas Texas. Do you know where I can find more information on, how to apply to become a candidate, and the process?

  4. Elling Lien · December 13, 2010