How to Overcome Barriers to Running for Office & Connect with Diverse Constituents

Lessons from a first-time candidate

Family Values @ Work
9 min readDec 14, 2022
Tony Iovieno with dog Tucci

About the writer: Tony Iovieno serves as the new Individual Giving Manager for Family Values @ Work. He ran for elected office for the first time in 2022 within his adopted hometown of Battle Creek, MI. American by birth, Tony grew up in Europe — returning to the USA for university. He moved to Michigan about 10 years ago. Tony identifies as a white cis hetero neurodiverse male and uses he/him/his pronouns.

Try as I might, I simply couldn’t master, or remember, the Burmese word for “thank-you”. Unless Lin Manual Miranda was just about to write a catchy new musical number about the word — the odds of me remembering it were pretty slim. To add to the stress, it had just dawned on me (let’s be honest — it was explained to me) that the baseball imagery and terms I had been using in my campaign missed the mark for our Burmese community. Why? Because baseball is just starting to grow there — meaning an unfamiliarity with any baseball imagery is to be expected. So, as my family drove over to a Get-Out-The-Vote candidate forum — sponsored in part by the Burmese Center (a local nonprofit that advocates for the Burmese population) — the very least I wanted to do was to be able to say “thank you”.

Tony Iovieno working on his remarks

Spoiler alert — I likely mispronounced the word and my “plan” did not work out as intended. Yet, I learned a ton in running for office and couldn’t help but to notice some significant barriers — in both the act of running for office and authentically connecting to a diverse community. For those either considering a run in ’24 or for those seeking new ideas to better support local candidates — I sincerely hope the following is helpful.

Barriers to Running

Getting your name on the ballot is one thing. Running a campaign that authentically connects to diverse constituents is another. To be clear — neither is easy. But this is not all doom and gloom — so please allow me to name some of these barriers — with the promise of ideas for solutions (aka barrier wrecking balls) later on.

The day I decided to run for office — three major needs, or ‘prerequisites’ really, became readily apparent. These ‘prerequisites’ are significant barriers to running for office — and I believe those barriers to be… Education. Time. And Money.

When I visited my clerk’s office to pick up a local candidate’s guide and the necessary paperwork to run — it was pretty intimidating (the amount of ‘stuff’, not the office). In short — there was a lot to read — some of it local, some of it from the State. I remember thinking that had I not had a phenomenal education, how much harder would it have been just to complete the paperwork? We already know that more than half of American adults cannot read above a 6th grade reading level. While I haven’t had the paperwork analyzed, I’d be shocked if a majority of it wasn’t considerably above the 6th grade reading level. How many potential candidates might this be scaring away? And might it ‘literally’ (pardon the pun) be half of us? A scary thought, for sure!

To be a candidate, it was clear I was going to need a lot of time too. I needed to gather signatures. I needed to attend events. I needed to complete surveys and interview with organizations for endorsements. So yes, I needed the privilege of having considerable free time. But more than that, I had to be free at the right times too (often after 5 PM and on weekends). That worked for me — but I live in a pretty industrialized city with many of our largest businesses operating 24/7 and employing three shifts. Yet again, another barrier seemed like it was excluding a huge swath of our community.

And finally, money. I am literally a fundraiser by day, and even so — money was a real barrier. I was confident in my ability to raise money, but it was both much harder and took considerably longer than I anticipated. Without the privilege of being able to donate to my own campaign at the outset, I would have been even further behind the 8-ball as a new candidate. I still recall receiving some initial quotes for various campaign activities and thinking, “Oh, I get why a majority of politicians in Congress are literal millionaires” — as it felt like you needed to be one just to run! Suffice it to say, we’ve identified another barrier.

Now, let’s shift our attention to challenges faced by active candidates genuinely trying to connect with their diverse communities and constituents.

Barriers to Connecting with Diverse Constituents

Let’s say you are a barrier-buster. You’ve completed the paperwork, gathered your signatures and filed appropriately. Congratulations — you’re a candidate! Now comes the hard part — actually connecting with human beings — and in particular those that may not look or think like you do. For those who are actually sincere about this, I noticed another trio of barriers that hit me like a ton of bricks. Let’s call these… The System. Community Resources. And Personality/Culture.

I’m a lover of numbers. Of Data. Spreadsheets. Math. Stats. Calculating my ‘win number’ (the amount of votes likely needed to win) was wildly fun. But even in that ‘fun’ — The System almost sucked me in.

Tony Iovieno — Calculating his “win number”

In case it is not clear from the table above, it made the most ‘logical’ sense for me to market my candidacy to those 60+ and to those living in the two wealthiest precincts in my area. The math, or the system really, demanded it. That was how to win, after all! But guess where a majority of my diverse/BIPOC voters live? Precinct 13 — which the math told me to essentially ignore. Thankfully, I didn’t execute that strategy for a variety of reasons (I definitely didn’t run to cater exclusively to wealthy folks 60+). But, I understand why candidates do this now and how even great candidates can get sucked in by ‘the system’. Even so; yuck!

As a first-time candidate, I was intentional about attending each candidate event or forum I was invited to. Perhaps I over prepared — writing speeches and talking points — while the majority of local candidates either didn’t show up at all, or winged it like a middle school student’s verbal book report when they forget to read the friggin’ book. Regardless, my Community Resources felt like such a barrier to connecting with actual voters. The events were wonderful — but hardly anyone was there to hear them. I don’t recall having much in the way of interpretation services available for those whose primary language was something other than English. I only noticed one local candidate who had materials in a language other than English readily available (shout-out to you, Sara Johnson, and congrats on your win). As a community and as candidates, what could be done differently to make events better attended and more accessible? How could we normalize local candidates having their materials translated as warranted?

And finally, a candidate’s Personality/Culture felt like another key barrier. Not extroverted (I’m not)? That’s a barrier. Did you grow up in a culture of respecting privacy and personal space (I did)? That’ll be a barrier. Does asking for money give you the creeps for cultural or personal reasons? Barrier. Bad at asking for help? Barrier. Are you originally from the place where you are running (I wasn’t)? I was surprised how large of a barrier that was. Do you have an atypical last name (mine has 5 vowels, only 2 consonants)? Barrier ahoy, matey! Unwilling to kiss the ring of the powers that be because you’re interested in systems change; not upholding the status quo? Oh My Lanta, will that be a barrier.

Yet, I promised this would not be all doom and gloom. Now that we’ve identified some barriers from the perspective of a first-time candidate, what can future candidates and communities actually do about it?

Take a Wrecking Ball to Those Barriers

I named some big and scary barriers, I get it. However, I believe there are some simple steps, or wrecking balls, we can take to demolish those barriers — or at least start poking some holes in them!

In Barriers to Running, we named Education, Time & Money as the key barriers that make running for office so difficult. So, what can be done?

Here are 3 ideas for solutions that would help remove barriers for future candidates.

  • The Education Wrecking Ball: Advocate for your local clerk’s office to review candidate packets and set a target for all materials to be at, or below, a 6th grade reading level. Ensure your local government is investing in professional translation services. Encourage your government to gather feedback from underrepresented people about the entire process — with the goal of making running for local office accessible and attractive to those underrepresented.
  • The Time Wrecking Ball: Promote holding key candidate events at different times of the day so as to not overtly favor the 9–5 crowd, and prioritize offering childcare and meeting accessibility needs. Help connect candidates to local community college students interested in public service — the candidate may get some help and perhaps the student gains course credit.
  • The Money Wrecking Ball: Encourage local funders/nonprofits to offer an introductory and nonpartisan course on fundraising 101. Meanwhile, promote nonpartisan mentorship programs that connect interested candidates to retired politicians. Armed with a process and a new network of potential donors, fundraising suddenly doesn’t seem quite as daunting.

Not a bad start! But, what about the actual campaign and authentically connecting to your diverse community? In Barriers to Connecting, we named The System, Community Resources, and Personality/Culture as our barriers to success. So, what can candidates and communities do to overcome these barriers?

Here are 3 ideas for solutions that I think move us closer to the answer.

  • The System Wrecking Ball: In short, !@#$% the system! But honestly, understand that doing things the ‘right’ way will be harder than doing things the system’s way — and that this may mean you lose. Make your peace with that early on, and choose your path accordingly. Additionally, surround yourself with value-aligned candidates who can help keep you accountable. A time may come when winning feels more important than doing what’s right — and it is in those moments where the system can suck you in the most. Resist!
  • The Community Resources Wrecking Ball: Here’s a great call to action for local funders. Earlier, I mentioned how rare it felt for local candidates to have their materials translated (and candidates must prioritize this more, too) — but what if that suddenly didn’t seem so complicated? Instead, what if funders provided additional election-year grants to local nonprofits who offer translation services to their communities? These grants could serve two purposes. One — local nonpartisan candidates could now have their materials translated at no additional cost. Two — translation services could be provided at all public candidate forums.
Tony with wife Ashley at campaign event
  • The Personality & Culture Wrecking Ball: I offer you a simple principle. Don’t fake it; but find it. What I mean, sincerely — is do not try to be everything to everyone. Great at something? Do that a lot. Feeling uncomfortable? Insecure? But it still needs to get done? Don’t fake it — find it. There is no perfect candidate, but I do think there is a perfect team. Understand the key roles and responsibilities of a successful campaign early on, and be honest with yourself about what you do well and what you have time for. For everything else — invest in the time to find a teammate. I often joked with my family that I needed a Czar of Boring Stuff, and you know what, I was right(ish!). Had I invested more time up front in recruiting and organizing the team I needed, perhaps my result would have been different in the end — but at the very least I would have felt more confident in my campaign’s strategy.

I imagine a future where running for office is more the norm than the exception, and where connecting to your community feels less like such a daunting task. By taking a wrecking ball to those barriers — we can make it happen — together.

--

--

Family Values @ Work

27 state coalitions working to win for Paid Sick Days, Paid Leave and other policies that value families at work in your city, county and state, then nation.