I want to see thoughtful, progressive, qualified candidates, especially those from communities who don't see themselves represented today, to use this as a blueprint to start making big plans.
By Cameron Kroetsch
Published November 14, 2018
If you're thinking about running in the next municipal election in Hamilton, please read this. It's part of a series of articles about my campaign and about the recent municipal election that will be coming out over the next little bit through Raise the Hammer.
Cameron Kroetsch campaign photo
The first article, which is mostly a summary of and reflection on the campaign we ran in Ward 2, will be followed by articles on how money, City Hall, and the media figured into this election, with a final piece on how I think we can and must move forward.
I'm writing this primarily for people who are considering running in the next municipal election and those who are doing postmortem analyses of their own campaigns, but also to push us all to be more engaged when this happens all over again. What I've written needs to be shared and, in my opinion, taken seriously by everyone who values our democracy.
I'm also writing this to shine a light on something that's usually only talked about in back rooms and with great deals of conjecture. These are, for many, stripes earned, secrets to trade, and power to wield. I'm not interested in any of those things. Rather, I think we need to stop hiding and whispering and start talking about this openly.
Some of it this will sound boastful, some self-deprecating, but I've done my best to balance that with honesty. I hope that every candidate who ran in this municipal election will consider sharing their experiences. This city needs every one of us.
And before you shout, "But Cameron, keep all this strategic information to yourself!" - I understand what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. It doesn't mean I'm not going to run again. It means that I was serious when I said I care about transparency and accountability. This is no exception.
First, so you understand where this is all coming from, I kept good records, have reliable data and won't say anything I can't back up - either from a first-hand account or through information that our campaign tracked.
I was the fourth person, city-wide, to register on May 1, 2018 and this campaign got going right out of the gate. We didn't waste any time. We began working on our website, photos, and videos as soon as I was legally registered and we spent the provincial election period fine-tuning our basic platform and planning our early campaign schedule.
For most of this campaign, I was supported by a handful of very dedicated volunteers who were each able to put between five and 40 hours a week into this campaign. That was how we did most of what we did.
I was given advice and help from many current and former candidates (at all levels of politics), members of political parties (every major and minor one), politicos, strategists, campaign managers, friends, family, and community organizers. Everyone was generous with their time and I wouldn't have been able to do any of this without their encouragement and honesty.
I ran knowing that I had a full-time job and that it would interfere with this election, which is why I registered on day one, hoping to mitigate that impact.
I knew that it would be almost impossible to keep a work-life-campaign balance, and I was right, and it didn't really work. I was often mentally and/or physically exhausted or preoccupied with things happening at work.
I managed to eat and I made sure to sleep, but only because so many people reminded me to do it or shared harrowing tales of how campaigns had a profoundly negative effect on their physical or mental health.
As everyone has been keen to remind me, and which I take no offense at hearing, I was "nobody" before I ran and had a very limited profile in Hamilton. I was new, inexperienced, and going up against an entrenched two-term incumbent. I'm not the first to do this and I won't be the last. I came into this with my eyes wide open.
Simply put: incumbency is real and there's always been a hometown advantage. In an age when political debates impact voting less and technology has replaced so many other ways of direct communication, I'd say this advantage is stronger than ever.
This is especially true if we acknowledge that the "top of the ticket" mayoral race gets most of the attention, leaving races for City Councillor a potentially confusing afterthought in a multi-candidate race, like the one we saw in Ward 2 with eight names on the ballot.
Incumbency comes with huge name recognition and a lot of power. The number of completed projects, road improvements, stop sign and stop light installations, and other infrastructure upgrades that happened during this election year were staggering.
Crews of city workers were shuffled around to accommodate politically-important projects in time for the election (or at least to get them started in time) like the John Street North bike lane, Beasley Park upgrades, and the years-overdue crossing at Main Street East and Ferguson Avenue South.
The incumbent also had the advantage of taking credit for every positive thing that happened during their time in office: housing market upswings, projects completed and championed by community members, and even work done by their political rivals.
And if recent examples aren't convincing enough, we don't have to look too far back to find evidence to underscore the power of incumbency in Hamilton politics.
A good example is the municipal race in Ward 11 in 2010 between Brenda Johnson and David Mitchell, the last time someone beat an entrenched incumbent. Johnson, who is still that ward's councillor, had a strong chance coming into that election, in part because of the widespread controversy surrounding the incumbent.
She won with 42 percent of the vote to Mitchell's 38 percent - a narrow margin of only 245 votes.
Before that, it was the campaign that Brian McHattie ran against Marvin Caplan in 2003 where he won with 58 percent of the vote to Caplan's 31 percent, also aided by a number of rumours that were swirling around about Caplan.
The most important thing for those paying attention to take away from those races, however, is not just that an incumbent was unseated but exactly how it happened (the same way in both cases).
In both races there was a narrow field of only three candidates for voters to choose from and both incumbent councillors were facing scandals of one kind or another, some quite public and acrimonious.
Perhaps more important, were the elections that happened just before the incumbents were unseated. In 2006 and 2000 respectively, other candidates had challenged these same incumbents, Mitchell and Caplan, and had seriously eroded their vote majority. Johnson and McHattie were both successful because the incumbents had been "softened up", so to speak.
My point: beating out an entrenched incumbent is likely a two-term job and probably not possible unless the incumbent is unpopular and you're an established name in the community.
Incumbency aside, I see this campaign as a success. Not only do I want to share this success with you, but I want to share with you why I think it matters and also why, if you're going to run next time, you should keep some of this in mind.
I played by every single painful rule: no signs on City property, every expense accounted for, and I waited until the election period started before I lifted a finger to do any physical work for this campaign. It wasn't as hard as it might seem and it really didn't have a profound effect on the outcome. My takeaway: you can play by the rules and it's not going to cost you the election.
I didn't resort to any personal attacks. At times, I challenged the incumbent's record but I didn't vilify him personally or say anything bad about him at the doors. You don't have to resort to spreading false rumours or name-calling to run a successful campaign. Focus on what you bring to the conversation. Voters will appreciate your ability to be decent to others even when you're under pressure and, frankly, they'll watch for it. If this is your first time running, the electorate will test you. If you lash out reactively, they'll take note.
Voter turnout was way up overall in Ward 2, from 29 percent in 2014 to more than 35 percent in this election (a 6 percent increase), and in Corktown, my home neighbourhood, voters came out in record numbers. There was an unbelievable 30 percent increase in voter turnout in Corktown. Election campaigns, win or lose, can be a powerful agent of change in your community. Campaign with that in mind.
I'm pretty sure I won both of the public debates (definitely the debate at Church of the Ascension). And before you say it, I know that "debates don't matter" to everyone but they do matter to the people who show up to them, which was hundreds of people. And, while they might not convince someone to vote for you, they might convince someone not to vote for you. Show up prepared, do your homework, and try your best.
We gave out more than 30,000 pieces of campaign literature either through flyering or door-knocking between July and election day. We produced different kinds of literature in a variety of sizes. Our design team got it right. We reached those who wanted to be reached and we made sure anyone who wanted information could get it from a beautiful and easy-to-use website. This helped me to go from a completely unknown candidate to someone who, by the end of the campaign, had reasonably good name recognition. It worked in part because of the volume but also because of the variety and clarity.
We managed to translate some of our materials into Portuguese. We received really positive feedback for this and it was one of the most cost-effective things we did. It means that virtually any campaign can afford to get some translation done and it has the potential to bridge a significant and often overlooked gap if it's done correctly. Plan for this early on and plan the distribution of your materials with multilingual communities in mind.
We had a positive and engaging social media campaign. We documented what we did and lived through the philosophy that if there's not a photo, it didn't happen. I know that social media doesn't win elections but it's becoming more important than ever for campaigns to reach new and young voters through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. People want to find out about your campaign in ways that work for them and social media is one way to meet people where they're at.
Our volunteers were amazing. We had web professionals, photographers, designers, artists, and videographers on this campaign who volunteered so much of their time. We wouldn't have been able to run the campaign we did without them offering their skills to us. We also had more than 40 volunteers out there on election day reminding people to vote and had scrutineers at every one of the polls. We had a hardcore group of canvassers, myself included, who did all of the door knocking and an energetic group of people flyering apartment buildings in the weeks leading up to the election. Their energy and dedication was incredible and absolutely awe inspiring. My point: you can't do this alone and you can't overlook one single part of this process. Don't give up on having a team for every activity and realize that 1 group of people cannot do everything. You need to spread out the work. Acknowledge where talents lie, confirm availability down to the hour, and put your team to use in ways that tap into their strengths.
Our core campaign team was incredibly talented. Recruit people to your inner circle who are not only enthusiastic about your candidacy but who can bring a needed skill or talent to the table. You'll need as much help as you can get and surrounding yourself with professionals who know their stuff is never a bad thing.
We had a great, detailed, and progressive platform. It has been one of the things about which I've received the most compliments. Though having a platform, at all, wasn't the deciding factor for all voters, I was proud that our team had a solid foundation from which to have conversations with residents. Make sure you have at least a broad campaign platform early on. If nothing else, it anchors you, your volunteers, and your supporters around a shared set of values and helps to build momentum.
We registered on the first day. Do this, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise and, please, don't worry if you don't have a website set up yet, just register. I lost count of the people I spoke to who tried to convince me it was foolish to register early. Simply put: you need the time to do the work and you need to be in a position to do it legally as a registered candidate. Also, just "being the candidate" since the very first day allows you to build natural momentum in your campaign and to get some much-needed practice.
We lost. While there was a clear message sent to the incumbent, who didn't get the majority of votes, we still didn't come as close as I would have liked (I would have liked to have won, in case that wasn't clear). So, despite the big wins, there were some outcomes that weren't great and we made some mistakes.
I didn't do very well in the televised debate. I came off as "too soft-spoken" and "too nervous and fidgety". More on that on my article on the media, but suffice it to say, it was one of the more difficult experiences in this campaign and it really didn't help me to reach or convince many of the voters who relied on that debate to make their decision. It was hard for me to find my political voice, immediately. I'd never done this before and it took me too long to hit my stride. Plan to invest in some media training (if your campaign can afford it).
We focused too much on houses and not enough on apartments, even when we did have the volunteers and resources to get there. While we were eventually able to get to almost every apartment and drop flyers, we weren't able to get to them early enough and we weren't able to knock on every apartment door. We were just too late. In a ward that has more people living in apartments than houses, this was a problem. The notion that "people who live in apartments don't vote" doesn't apply in this ward. Make sure you understand the physical context of your ward better and don't use idiomatic or anecdotal evidence to make your decisions. Good early data can help you to shape your strategy. And, because I tire of hearing it: apartments are not hard to get into, it's just that you have to be persistent and insist on your right to be there. Most superintendents acquiesce and the majority of tenants are happy to meet you.
We didn't connect well enough to immigrant, religious, and refugee communities. This is work that really needs to happen naturally and more organically as part of your community work before a campaign gets going. Simply put, I hadn't been involved in the community long enough or widely enough for that to have happened and our campaign had difficulty reaching out in meaningful ways that wouldn't have come across as disingenuous or tokenizing. I think it's important that we stood by our principles but I felt we missed out by not connecting to as many communities as possible. If you're not connected to these communities, plan to reach out as soon as the campaign gets going.
We resonated more with younger voters than older voters. Realize, early on, that you may only have 1 opportunity to knock on some people's doors. If someone isn't home, or doesn't want to answer, ask yourself how else you can reach them. What are some ways that some groups of people receive and accept communication outside of the mail or a physical knock at the door? Print media and social media advertising both play roles in ensuring you reach everyone with your message.
One of our biggest mistakes is that we were too organized and didn't plan enough for the organic, the last-minute, or the unexpected. That sounds like humblebragging, but I can assure you that it's not. We weren't nimble enough to respond to things that came up on the fly or to plan extra events when it seemed like a good idea because every one of the members of our core team was indispensably preoccupied, myself included. Build in flexibility to your team by ensuring that there's some role overlap so that when an opportunity arises that you need to jump on, the core responsibilities are maintained.
There wasn't enough space for me to just "be the candidate". I did all of my own social media and, for a big part of the campaign, ran my own scheduling. In the end, I needed more time at events and to find a way for more public speaking opportunities. Don't forget that, while it's important not to seem too detached, lofty, or unapproachable, that as the candidate you need to participate less in some of the iterative tasks and more in driving the big picture.
We didn't get enough sign locations. I'm not talking about abandoned gas stations and fences around developments, I mean people's lawns and business windows. Our first round of door knocking was so focused on getting my name out there and introducing me to people that we weren't able to get to the hard sell of the lawn sign before it was too late. Of the 550 signs we ordered and expected to get out we put out about half (275). Even if it means not being able to knock on every door, make sure that your team goes back to doors a second time to ask for the lawn sign. Structuring our door knocking this way would have increased our reach.
Even if I had done everything right, I still may not have beaten the incumbent. The most important takeaways I have from this election, specifically about campaign finances, the media, and the City of Hamilton's official role in the election, will be detailed in the rest of this series and will highlight what I think are the most important but least talked about parts of running a municipal campaign.
We can build each other up as we continue to challenge incumbency in this changing city. And, yes, I do have an agenda: I desperately want to see new faces and hear new voices at City Hall. The job of City Councillor should not be a career: two or three terms is enough. Do your part, help to lift up your neighbours, serve your city, then move on, please.
I hope that the long, possibly too long, lists above gave you a sense of what we did, what we felt good about, and where we could have gone with this campaign. Whether I choose to run in the next election or not, I want every amazing candidate who wants to run, all across the city, to start from where I ended.
I want to see thoughtful, progressive, qualified candidates, especially those from communities who don't see themselves represented today, to use this as a blueprint to start making big plans. And I'm going to keep on insisting that, together, we really can have a better Hamilton.
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