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Finding good candidates shouldn't be waiting for Superman

Reacting to Fiona Grieg's dropping out of the Ward 2 DC Council race this morning, many of you said things like, "Politics isn't for faint of heart," or "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Photo by n0nick on Flickr.

Those people are absolutely correct; that's how politics works. Greig should have known that. In fact, she did; I talked to some of her supporters who said they warned her about this very eventuality. The fact that she still wasn't prepared is indeed disappointing.

It's easy to blame Greig. She certainly made mistakes. Or people can blame Jack Evans for running a rough campaign. But we should do neither. The problem is that voters, especially Democratic voters, expect the moon from candidates who can never live up to expectations.

A good candidate must have all of these qualities at the same time:

  • Ability to talk like a think tank expert about any policy issue;
  • The right positions as viewed by every different issue group they court;
  • Charisma so that voters "want to have a beer with" the candidate;
  • Stamina to talk to voters nonstop, all day, every day for months, and politely listen to everyone no matter how crazy;
  • Toughness to endure all manner of nasty treatment from opponents and voters;
  • Willingness to ask for money, which if you've never done you can't possibly realize how hard it is;
  • Expert management skills to hire a terrific team cheaply in just a few months;
  • An absolutely squeaky-clean background;
  • And much more.
If a candidate doesn't have one of these, we blame the candidate. They ran a lousy campaign. We just didn't like them personally. They don't know enough about the issues. Every candidate has a thousand ways to be a doofus.

With this set of expectations, it should come as no surprise that we get a fair number of candidates with particularly strong personal desire to acquire power. Those with ambition but who don't care so much about making the world better can survive this process and learn to sound caring enough about issues to get by on the issues, while most of those more motivated by love of their city find another career.

If winning is about being a good candidate, then the leaders we get are good candidates rather than good leaders. Wouldn't it be nice if, instead of a system that rewards the toughest and most ambitious, rewards those who actually have the best visions for the future? But that's a pipe dream.

It's important to be tough, not just to win office but to pass important legislation once in power. The attacks won't stop with the campaign, but continue into the policy debates. And leaders who take poor positions absolutely need to face criticism for those actions.

The campaign filing dustup only told us what we already knew about Greig, that she was a fairly inexperienced newcomer facing a seasoned veteran. Her dropping out did tell us something new, that she lacked at least one of the qualities we expect in a great candidate, the toughness.

We learned in this spring's special election that Sekou Biddle lacked the management component, at least at the time; Bryan Weaver lacked the fundraising capacity, Joshua Lopez lacked the policy expertise, and so on.

But ask yourself: Do you have all of these qualities? Do you have even half of them? And how many people have them all? Maybe Vincent Orange did; all he lacked was an interest in helping anyone but himself.

I think that a lot of the incumbents on today's DC Council ought to be replaced. A lot of people think that. This past summer, many people said to me, individually or in groups, that they were looking around for people to run for various offices. I've heard secondhand about many others searching for the same thing.

And in most cases, they came up short. Many names that had been thrown around as fantastic potential candidates didn't run. Some did, and as we get to know the candidates, we'll find out if any of them are really exciting, or all fall victim to one of the many pitfalls of a campaign, or get written off too early by the horse-race press coverage.

This is the reality of politics. Everyone knows it, and those that don't quickly learn. It's often a choice between the lesser of two evils. Often, if there's someone you're extremely excited about, they're a long-shot candidate because they don't excel in every one of the necessary criteria.

The main reason I'm particularly a fan of Tommy Wells is that he actually does have most of these qualities, at least in moderate measure. He's extremely good on policy, but also able to go to a community meeting or church or block party and mingle with everyone without quickly getting sick of it. He's pretty likable, but also fairly tough. He has hired some great staff. And so on.

He represents one of the best opportunities to get a politician who really cares about making better communities in DC, and can actually win elections as necessary to accomplish important things.

How many people can do that, and want to? We need more of them. At least 14: one per ward, 4 at-large, one chairman, and one mayor. Not to mention 436 representatives, 100 senators, 1 vice-president, 1 president, and countless state and local legislators all across the country. Where are they?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Very nice commentary.
Not to snipe but there are only 435 Representatives unless they changed DELEGATE Holmes Norton's title without letting the DC statehood people know.

by David F-H on Nov 9, 2011 11:51 am • linkreport

[Sentence removed for violating the comment policy.]

But if I may, this post represents the GO-GO confusion.

Guess what -- politicans are human. They aren't always perfect. What you have to measure them on is limited information.

GO-GO aggregators, like GGW, aren't well suited to bringing that out.

What they are good is highlighting specific issues. We call that lobbying.

What GO-GO and GGW should be doing is fighting for term limits, not worrying about specific candidates.

by charlie on Nov 9, 2011 11:52 am • linkreport


You should run. You also have those qualities, plus a platform. We cannot, must not let people like Evans and others get away with this. Life is unfair, I know, but Courage and morals should beat out dirty campaign tricks.

DO IT...

Otherwise,the Ward will continue as it is. I have the formula hire Ken Cummins and Tom Lindenfeld offer them more money than Evans and a good-viable candidate and they will do it. Lindenfeld is not all money, but he needs a candidate he can work with. Money talks in politics. You have it all. Do it! We need someone like you.

by Feras Mahkloof on Nov 9, 2011 11:55 am • linkreport

charlie: Go-go is a kind of music, right? What are you referring to here?

by David Alpert on Nov 9, 2011 11:57 am • linkreport

"If winning is about being a good candidate, then the leaders we get are good candidates rather than good leaders."

I think this line about sums up the dilemma. The electorate certainly needs something on which to judge a candidate. At this point, we honestly don't know if Greig would have been a great leader. The campaign filing mistake really should not have happened and given that mistake, I can see how the public would pause if asked to trust that this person could effectively lead.

But you're right. What ultimately ends up being recognized in a candidate that is successful come election time is a very narrow skill set that enabled them to finish the marathon. That's it, no more, no less. We can see on both the local and national level that running a campaign is very different than actually governing.

by Roman on Nov 9, 2011 11:58 am • linkreport


I agree with you on Wells, he is a good and solid public servant. We need more Tommy Wells.

BTW Holmes Norton needs to go.

by Feras on Nov 9, 2011 11:59 am • linkreport

Go-Go is what I call goo-goo in DC.

by charlie on Nov 9, 2011 12:02 pm • linkreport

Nice piece, especially your praise for Tommy Wells.

But some of your punditry seems off. How do you back up your claim that Biddle "lacked the management component" and Weaver "lacked the fundraising capacity"? My recollection of what happened in that race was a bit different. Weaver never stood much of a chance, but hurt Biddle's chances, especially after Biddle's support from the Mayor and Council Chair became something voters held against him and folks began to think that Weaver had a shot and/or that Mara was the more electable alternative to Orange.

by PMT on Nov 9, 2011 12:19 pm • linkreport

PMT: Weaver "never had much of a chance" because he didn't have a lot of money and thus the press didn't take him seriously. Biddle ran a lousy campaign that had no message and poor organization.

Certainly people forgive all manner of sins if the candidate wins. Many think Bill Clinton's campaign was brilliant and Al Gore's or John Kerry's hapless, but both got a higher percentage of votes than Clinton did. If Ross Perot and Ralph Nader hadn't run, would we view the campaigns of that decade differently?

But while your dynamic certainly was part of the equation, Weaver and Biddle both made significant mistakes. My point is that so does everyone.

by David Alpert on Nov 9, 2011 12:25 pm • linkreport

Having David run would be an interesting idea. He brings a lot to the table.

But you don't have to be superman. You do have be a politican. I can't wait to see what happens when people ask Councilman David for help with their parking tickets. Or demand he bring the Redskins back to DC. Or to do something about the noisy bar down the street.

Politics is a tough business, which is why we want people good at politics to run for office and win.

by charlie on Nov 9, 2011 12:26 pm • linkreport

@charlie: After reading your first comment, I had the same question as David Alpert.

"Go-Go is what I call goo-goo in DC."

Oh. Thanks for clearing that up.

by Gray on Nov 9, 2011 12:30 pm • linkreport

Though this post is more about local candidates, I think we tend to expect too much of elected leaders. It's not enough that they be good policy-makers, they must be role models as well. That's not to discount officials' ethical misdeeds, but I think most of the time their policy decisions impact people far more than do their character traits (see Bill Clinton), and yet it's the later that tends to get disproportionate attention by the media.

by DCster on Nov 9, 2011 12:33 pm • linkreport

Well, it's not that Jack Evans isn't a good leader, he just represents a particular faction that you, me or others may wish had less power and control--that is, big business ("Growth Machine" "Urban Regime")--in the context of the city and its future.

I am kinda surprised that Greig dropped out because of this stuff. It's a big job, with a lot of money, the stakes are high. You have to deal with an incredible amount of bullshit. But wtf?

Knowing Evans' strengths before considering running ought to have been the first order of business--funding and connection should be obvious. Because of that, defeating him is very very difficult at the ward level. Not at the citywide level (e.g., his various failed attempts to become mayor), where his less than populist positions don't play well, but matter less in the ward because the ward runs well, and presumably he does good constituent services--at least as long as the issues don't run up against the Growth Machine agenda.

OTOH, if he is playing that kind of hardball, then he is afraid, because that kind of "argument to the person" isn't about the issues, and he must feel weak there. So there must be some vulnerability, because those kinds of tactics are signs of weakness not strength.

FWIW, I ran for office in Ann Arbor, almost 25 years ago. I lost, in a traditionally Republican ward, but it was a good experience.

Now, like others, I have baggage which would make it very difficult for me to consider running, ever. Not to mention that I am not into the nitty-gritty retail politics that political office requires. People don't just want vision, and aren't into rational planning and/or the design method. They want elected officials to focus on the day to day.

by Richard Layman on Nov 9, 2011 12:42 pm • linkreport

I think "toughness" is a quality of a great leader as well as a good candidate. A true leader leads, and that means making unpopular decisions, dealing with hostile legislators and dealing with hostile interest groups. None of this is easy, and personal stamina and "toughness" is required to get anything done. So I don't bemoan the fact that we seek such qualities in the candiates job interviews (i.e. the campaign).

You can argue all you want about how politics should not be this rough, but if you pick up a book about the Greeks, Romans, or even our early leaders (think Jackson), politics has always been bloodsport and always will be. The real "Waiting for Superman" is thinking this will ever change. So for me, I want my representative to be tough as a cofin nail.

by GinChevyChase on Nov 9, 2011 12:59 pm • linkreport

The most successful DC politician in recent memory is Marion Barry. Consider how he satisfies DA's list:

Ability to talk like a think tank expert about any policy issue -- while Mr Barry is very articulate, he does not sound like a wonk. He uses this to his advantage.

The right positions as viewed by every different issue group they court -- Mr. "they'll get over it" Barry is not afraid to offend.

Charisma so that voters "want to have a beer with" the candidate -- certainly not with a admitted alcoholic.

Stamina to talk to voters nonstop, all day, every day for months, and politely listen to everyone no matter how crazy -- this he has.

Toughness to endure all manner of nasty treatment... -- Mr Barry is certainly very tough.

Willingness to ask for money... -- no problem here.

Expert management skills... -- Mr Barry's management skills are better than most people think. He can get a lot out of his workers, and very quickly.

An absolutely squeaky-clean background -- I leave this to the readers to decide.

And much more. Mr. Barry was an Eagle Scout and has a Masters degree in Chemistry.

by goldfish on Nov 9, 2011 1:08 pm • linkreport

To a certain extent, a bit of roughness in a campaign vets you for what WILL happen if you get elected and all your foibles go under a microscope. Good politicians know how to turn small to moderate character flaws into humanizing elements--only those who have erred and suffered a price can understand the travails of the average constituent.

Oppo research teaches you to be careful in how you and your campaign run. Assuming that at all times someone will seize on an embarassing mistakes is one motivator not to make embarassing mistakes. George Allen made the mistake of thinking that he was safe because he was largely with like-minded people. Thinking that like-minded people are representative of everyone is a fatal mistake.

by Crickey7 on Nov 9, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

LOL@Goldfish. Well you are right on all counts.

The internet/blogosphere has totally changed the way in which politicians campaign and serve while in office.

But while we do have unreasonable expectations, sometimes the candidates encourages it.

by HogWash on Nov 9, 2011 2:28 pm • linkreport

"Finding good candidates shouldn't be waiting for Superman"

It's not limited to local candidates...look at the Republican hopefuls running for president.

by Marian Berry on Nov 9, 2011 3:13 pm • linkreport

What GO-GO and GGW should be doing is fighting for term limits, not worrying about specific candidates.

Man, this just seems to be total non-sequitur. It seems to me all term limits will do is make it impossible to keep the occasional decent politician who manages to get elected.

To me it seems obviously the real problem isn't that good people can't get elected because incumbents are clogging up the works, but rather that bad people stay in office because decent candidates are so rare (because of the cost, both socially and financially, and because voters rarely punish bad behavior).

Look at the GOP presidential primary field.

by oboe on Nov 9, 2011 3:24 pm • linkreport

Greig's early departure is a disappointment. Jack Evans needs a valid and formidable challenger, even if not perfect, if only to draw contrast to his serious imperfections, if not to win soundly.

by Lisa on Nov 9, 2011 3:32 pm • linkreport

Damn you Marian Berry for pre-plagiarizing my snark.

by oboe on Nov 9, 2011 3:33 pm • linkreport

LOL, oboe. Marian Berry must have that secret GGW time machine:

by 7r3y3r on Nov 9, 2011 4:37 pm • linkreport

The City Paper took Weaver so unseriously that they endorsed him.

by Weaver and the Press on Nov 9, 2011 6:36 pm • linkreport

@goldfish, the "which candidate would you want to have a beer with" test doesn't require actually having a beer. George W. Bush walloped the bejeezus out of both Al Gore and John Kerry on this metric, even though W. is an alcoholic and doesn't drink alcohol.

And, speaking as someone who's been bought a round by Marion Barry (really), he's very good at seeming like the kind of person you'd like to have a drink with, even if you know he wouldn't actually have one.

by cminus on Nov 10, 2011 11:25 am • linkreport

Did charlie ever explain what GO-GO stands for? Clearly it's an acronym, since it was all capitalized. I'm curious.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 10, 2011 4:42 pm • linkreport

[Sentence removed for violating the comment policy.]

Go-Go is what I call goo-goo in DC.

by charlie on Nov 9, 2011 12:02 pm

by Trulee Pist on Nov 11, 2011 9:14 am • linkreport

Trulee Pist: That still didn't answer the question, but thanks for pointing his comment out. I was aware of it.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 11, 2011 9:31 am • linkreport

@Trulee Pist

Yeah I don't think he really answered the question, but I think charlie was talking about Good Government.

I mean clearly if you don't know what the "goo-goo" acronym means you can't figure it out from charlie's "explanation."

by MLD on Nov 11, 2011 9:43 am • linkreport

@ MLD; people who don't know Goo-Goo shouldn't play GO-GO.

by charlie on Nov 11, 2011 9:56 am • linkreport

Goo-Goo is a relatively old term (hence I know it) that derogatorily refers to those who advocate for what they believe is a "good government" agenda -- but which others who are more likely to use the term consider to be naively ineffectual and overly-prescriptive.

Not worth responding to if ya ask me.

by Dennis Jaffe on Nov 11, 2011 10:19 am • linkreport

We shouldn't waste our time on candidates running on a goo-goo platform/temperament but are unwilling to focus like a laser on their opponents and not be afraid to attack them directly while dodging the flak and volleys from those opponents.

Grieg would be happier as a fundraiser/special advisor/interest group advocate rather than a politician. Her only weakness is that she would probably be drawn to other ineffective goo-goo earnest local politicians who are unable to get elected and get things done.

by Tyro on Nov 11, 2011 10:33 am • linkreport

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