By Jeremy C. Nagel
LANSING — Election years at Farm Bureau are like the proverbial tide that raises all boats—they cause an overall elevation of activity throughout the organization, from your community-group level to AFBF headquarters in D.C.
Accordingly, MFB’s ongoing 2018 Meeting Season has included a number of features rooted in the organization’s political efforts, from last week’s birthday ode from AgriPac Founding Father Al Almy to a pair of bona fide Friends of Agriculture sharing insider insights at the recent Young Farmer Leaders Conference.
Dist. 20 State Sen. Margaret O’Brien and Dist. 80 State Rep. Mary Whiteford together represent tens of thousands of southwestern Lower Peninsula residents, from the urban center of Kalamazoo to the sprawling rural reaches of Allegan County. Both shared with an attentive Young Farmer audience their perspectives on what it takes to make a successful run for public office.
One of the first things prospective candidates must do is their homework.
“You have to look at your district—get to know your district,” O’Brien said. “I served on Portage City Council eight years before running for the House.
“Get to know your legislators,” said O’Brien. “We love getting to know people.”
She finds electronic communication impersonal and less effective than face-to-face contact or even a phone call.
“Email and Facebook are emotionally detached,” she said, and as such are less effective at really getting to know people, and they’re clumsy and slow at getting to the core of someone’s perspective.
Whiteford was less selective in her communications preferences.
“It doesn’t matter—Facebook, email, phone, mobile office hours, community events,” she said. “It doesn’t matter, just reach out.”
Door to Door
Both legislators offered telling insights from the campaign trail, from the grind of knocking on doors to the stresses it puts on family and finances.
“Faith, family and hard work,” Whiteford said. “Without all three, you can’t make it work.”
Both agreed there was no substitute for speaking with their electorates face to face; no amount of direct mail or social media marketing takes the place of the age-old practice of knocking on doors.
“Making those personal connections and understanding what people are going through in their lives is invaluable,” Whiteford said.
“Door-to-door is very powerful,” O’Brien said. “If politics stops being about the individual, we’ve got a problem, and the power of the individual is what door-to-door is about.
“The people who meet me felt invested in me personally. Campaigning is about hard work, making a commitment, moving forward. Take your message to them—their turf—where they feel comfortable. That’s where you get their realest thoughts, feelings and opinions.
“If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t’ve won my election.”
After sharing their respective stories about losing elections, both women turned bright lights onto some of the realities of life in office. O’Brien was particularly blunt and didn’t hold back in painting a realistic portrait of what political life can be like.
“You need to know the realities and how to get there. It’s really hard to get there sometimes,” she said. “Talk to people who’re going to tell you what you don’t want to hear.
“Being in elected office is sometimes very uncompromising. Understand what you’re committing to; this business is a demanding mistress and it will suck the living life out of you.”
“Money alone doesn’t win an election,” Whiteford said. “but you need to connect with people and that’s expensive.”
Whiteford advised attendees curious about running for office to start at the lowest, most local level.
“My advice is look at the makeup of the township board; that’s usually the least amount of time commitment. If you’re working, you can run for a township office or your county board of commissioners.
“Get involved in your county Farm Bureau. The key is meeting people and understanding what your neighbors are going through so they learn they can trust you. Work on being a good person people can trust.
“Be a good voice of the people.”
Whiteford’s start-small, start-local advice is soon to be reflected in Farm Bureau’s revised approach toward encouraging members’ political ambitions.
“Service in government and holding elected office is really one of the highest levels of involvement Farm Bureau encourages its members to consider,” said Matt Kapp, MFB’s governmental relations specialist. “We’re always on the lookout for members with political ambition, and for decades have provided programming to help equip them for the realities of political campaigning.
“Traditionally we’ve focused those efforts on members looking to run for the state house of representatives and state senate.”
But the broad spectrum of political involvement doesn’t start in Lansing. Kapp said the next iteration of Farm Bureau’s Academy for Political Leadership will broaden its scope and encourage members to look closer to home—offices at the county and township levels.
“You look at the Leroy Township situation in Calhoun County and it’s pretty clear how and why we need more farmers involved in local-level offices,” Kapp said. “I don’t think there’s a farmer in Michigan who wouldn’t have headed that mess off at the pass had he or she been a member of that township board or planning commission.”
After eight daylong sessions over three months, MFB’s inaugural Academy for Political Leadership graduated eight participants last April. County Farm Bureaus are encouraged to nominate members for the next academy class by Aug. 31. Contact Matt Kapp (517-679-5338) for more information.