Want to make a difference? Try running for local office

ALPENA – Thinking of running for election? Maybe you’d like to campaign for a seat on the board of your local county commissioners or serve as a township trustee to help improve services for residents.

This coming November, these seats will be contested in Alcona, Alpena, Montmorency and Presque Isle counties, but there are deadlines.

Candidates who are Democrats or Republicans must file by 4 p.m. April 22.

“Not 4:01 p.m. We’ll be closed then,” said Alpena County Clerk Bonnie Friedrichs, who has handled over 30 elections in her career.

Paperwork is available online or at the county clerk office and takes about 15 minutes to fill out. The Michigan Secretary of State’s website at michigan.gov/sos/ also is loaded with information.

“Anybody can run for office,” said Patricia Truman, who is county clerk in Alcona. “But you must be a registered voter and live in the district where you are running for office.”

The packet includes:

  • an affidavit of identity (two copies are needed), along with your ID
  • a statement of organization
  • a partisan petition. The number of signatures for each office can vary, and the requrements for documentation are stringent.
  • or you can turn in a payment of $100 in lieu of the petition, Truman said. If you come in first or second on election day, you get your filing fee back.

There are different requirements and deadlines if you are an independent, though, officials said. And if you miss a deadline, you could face a whole different set of hurdles as a write-in candidate. Or wait for a position to open up after the swearing-in next January, and see if you can be appointed.

At a recent information session for potential candidates organized by the League of Women Voters of Alpena County, Friedrichs explained other nuances of running for local office. Among other panelists were Alpena County Commissioner Eric Lawson and Alpena Councilwoman Cindy Johnson.

Campaigns for higher offices require deeper pockets and if you are aiming for the Michigan House or Senate, you’ll need to have worked your way up the system years ago, because those seats are controlled by Republicans and Democrats, Friedrichs and other experts said. You’ll also need a crackerjack campaign staff, experienced and reliable treasurer and the willingness to handle a ton of paper work so you can account for every penny of your campaign contributions.

“It wouldn’t be unusual for a large campaign to cost $20,000 to $30,000,” Friedrichs said.

Locally, however, there are plenty of opportunities and if you are planning on spending less than $1,000 on your campaign, “this avoids all that paperwork, especially if you do not have someone running against you,” Friedrichs said. “You can just be yourself, introducing yourself during public comment segments at meetings, and letting people know that you are interested.”

It helps to have experience with local issues.

“The learning curve for somebody without a background in business or law is a little steep,” said Lawson, who has a doctorate in violin and experience in managing large orchestras.

Lawson was appointed to fill the seat of Rich Fortier, who died in 2013, and said he plans to run this year.

“But there is a lot of hands-on training, but there are a lot of policies, too, that you have to become familiar with,” he said.

Johnson won her seat on Alpena Municipal Council as a write-in candidate last fall, which is a tougher route. But her training in politics occurred decades earlier. She spent thousands of hours working on behalf of historical preservation, the Downtown Development Authority and in local schools.

“I was in on the beginning of the facade grant and that was one of the biggest factors in turning around the look of downtown,” Johnson said. “People invested in their buildings and it had a snowball effect – that’s what excites me about government and what can be done.”

Eventually, Johnson was appointed to a seat on the planning commission, because of her background, and when she decided to pursue her council seat last year, she had plenty of supporters. They also were willing to go door-to-door to show voters how to write in her name on the ballot.

“They would talk it out to determine what was the best strategy. We’d picked the best strategy and moved forward,” she said. “We just did it.

“People said if I didn’t attack other candidates, my chances of winning were nil. But we had too many things to concentrate on. We had to let people know it was OK to write in a candidate.”

Harley Hopp also has been through the first-time candidate experience, but on a smaller scale. He is a trustee in Curtis Township.

About six years ago, when he moved to the area, he decided to run for township supervisor as an independent. But he lost, receiving on 50 votes.

“But I stayed active and I paid attention to what they were doing,” Hopp said. “Then when a planning commission position opened up I took that opportunity. So I had knowledge of what was going on.”

Later, he was appointed to the Curtis Township Board of Trustees and ran for election, using handpainted signs.

“I wanted to do something for the community and I’m an independent. I don’t make decisions based on political parties,” he said.

The results are visible. The community has a new fire truck, buildings have been spruced up and the board is seeking to renew its road millage so more street improvements can be made.

“You’ve got to get yourself known out there,” he said.

Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at blehndorff@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.