I’ve always admired people who are willing to run for local councils and boards. It takes a unique blend of self-confidence and self-sacrifice to do the job well, and it truly takes all kinds.

In the years I spent on the East Oregonian editorial board, I got to sit down with all kinds of would-be elected officials as they made their pitch for office. They ranged from senators and governors to local commissioners and city councilors. We treated each endorsement meeting as a job interview, testing a candidate’s credentials and seeing if they were willing to leave the trail of talking points and get philosophical on topics generally left out of public debates.

And no matter who they were, from Frank Harkenrider seeking a 20-somethingth term on the Hermiston City Council to 20-something Roy Barron seeking a first, we always asked why they wanted the seat.

It’s a fundamental question, and one every candidate should be ready to answer with clarity.

While they may not readily admit it, we found through these interviews that candidates fell into one of six categories. It’s not perfect — like a personality test, most people would show characteristics of several traits. But when asked the simple question “Why?” we’d often find one of these characters ready to speak.

The team player. Impressed by the direction of the governing body, and just wanting to join in the effort wherever possible while staying in the background. Most common in volunteer capacities, such as school boards and city councils, where collaboration and consensus are valued.

The ribbon cutter. From new buildings to tree plantings, if there’s a crowd and a camera, they’ll be there. They’re motivated to get projects done, and often the vocal champions along the way. This trait is well-suited for mayors, who are often the face of city governments.

The naysayer. Something stinks in city hall, the county courthouse, or the Oregon Capitol, and they know what it is. A candidate of grievance, whether personal or universal, who can spend an afternoon discussing the ills of the body they’re running for but sometimes struggle to identify what it’s doing well.

The professor. An expert in a particular field hoping to share that expertise with anyone who will listen. Rarely afraid to go off talking points because they have a dissertation they’d like to share on the history of land use planning, the economic philosophy of John Maynard Keynes, or the plight of the honeybee.

The flag bearer. Finding true demographic representation in an elected body is nearly impossible, and it’s far more common to find a council or board that leans toward a similar race, gender and age bracket. This candidate offers a viewpoint not represented by current members and wants to diversify the decision-making process.

The good citizen. Encouraged by friends or recruited by current members of the public body, these candidates usually are the first or only to file for a seat. Civic duty includes paying taxes, serving on juries and voting, and these folks take their commitment to the next level.

Of course, there’s all sorts of reasons not to run for office. The decisions are hard. The pay is lousy. The spotlight can be hot, and the criticism scorching. It’s why so many seats have only one person file for them, or even none.

In reality, anyone with the guts to write their name down and ask for votes has at least some good citizen in them. It’s a great privilege to have an open elections process that allows people to step up and nominate themselves for office.

While you may be dreading the slog of this election year on the national level — only 9½ months to go — don’t forget to pay attention to the local races and the unique individuals who will make decisions that affect your everyday life.


Daniel Wattenburger is the former managing editor of the East Oregonian. He lives in Hermiston with his wife and children and is an account manager for Pac/West Communications. Contact him at danielwattenburger@gmail.com.

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