Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Roger Kilgore, who ran for the at-large Denver school board seat won by Happy Haynes on Nov. 1.
In the 1939 classic movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, who is unexpectedly appointed by Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper to fill an unexpired US Senate term with the expectation that he would be out of his element and not make trouble for the status quo in Washington DC.
For most of the movie, this is true, but eventually Mr. Smith, with help along the way, is able to make a difference for the people at the expense of the vested interests in Washington.
Like Mr. Smith’s experience in Washington, I found the campaign process to be both invigorating and frustrating. It was invigorating first and foremost because I was seeking to serve in a position that influences the direction and ultimate success of the Denver Public Schools and its students. I was, and am, passionate about our schools; it was a campaign worth waging. It was also energizing to talk with voters in the schools, at their front door, on the telephone, or at public events about their concerns and dreams for our schools. Talking with teachers, parents, and principals was similarly engaging, as well as enlightening.
The frustrating part of the process was that as a newcomer to electoral politics in Denver, I faced two primary obstacles. The first obstacle was name recognition. My primary tools to introduce myself to voters were a website, a small, but dedicated, cadre of volunteers, yard signs, robocalls (inexpensive, but reviled), radio ads, and public forums (usually with underwhelming attendance). Mailings, billboards, and other strategies were too expensive for my campaign.
I had hoped, initially, that I could leverage endorsements to help spread the word. In my conversations with school board members, city council members, state representatives and senators, and other current or former elected or appointed public servants I began to realize that each could be categorized in one of three ways: 1) they were endorsing someone else because they believed that person would do a good job, 2) they were endorsing someone else because they had to politically, or 3) they were not endorsing because they did not see a candidate in the race who shared their views that could raise the money to compete. My impression was that the second category was the largest of the three.
The second obstacle was to differentiate myself from the other candidates. Options for doing this, beyond a very superficial level, are limited. The best opportunities in this election were the public forums and candidate websites. Unfortunately, the forums do not reach a wide audience and not all candidates view a website as anything more than a fundraising tool.
Other forms of communication – mailings, billboards, ads, yard signs, and robocalls – all suffer from congenital superficiality. Door to door canvassing has the potential for substance, but its effectiveness can vary widely from the candidate knocking on doors to the paid literature dropper who may not remember the candidate’s name.
I was challenged in simply reaching out to each voter and I was challenged by entrenched interests like those Mr. Smith encountered in the fictional (though believable) Washington of 1939. In Denver, these interests had a narrative that, in my experience, was closed to ideas and thoughts outside of the established orthodoxy. The narrative was that we are on the right path and if you suggest specific strategies for improvement you represent a threat. The narrative did not permit open and honest conversation.
Lest a reader think that I am as naïve as Mr. Smith, I can assure you that I am a quick learner and my experiences during this election were not completely unforeseen. Money and connections are not everything, but they do help.
Overall, my first campaign experience was a positive one. I will remember this election by all of the wonderful folks I met and worked with and that I came in first of the four candidates running for the at-large seat that did not have nearly a quarter million dollars to address Denver voters.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.