Local Political Scandals: Can I Win a Re-Election Campaign?

Dave from Ohio sends us an interesting question about how local candidates can revive their political careers following a scandal:

“Hi, I’m a fan and maybe you can help give me advice with a problem that I have. I was a City Councilman but had some personal problems in my life and made some bad mistakes that ended with me getting arrested (it was my own fault, I admit that).

“I have overcome those problems now, but the local newspapers were not kind in their coverage and I lost my last re-election campaign. I really want to continue serving my community as an elected official, do you have any suggestions for how I could win my seat back?”

Thanks for the question, Dave. Although you don’t give us any details about what actions led to your political scandal and arrest, it’s admirable that you admit that the fault for your problem was yours alone–far too many politicians who get caught up in a scandal try to pass the buck and blame their behavior on other people.

political campaign scandalRegardless of whether you are successful in getting re-elected or not, taking responsibility for your actions and admitting that you have a problem is the first step toward recovery and building a better life.

In my opinion, though, the nature of your mistakes has great bearing on whether or not you should attempt to run for office again at all. Elected officials are entrusted with very serious responsibilities to serve their constituents and do the best job they can representing them.

If your scandal involved exploiting your office for personal gain, then I’ll be brutally honest with you: the voters should never give you the opportunity to bilk them again, and you should get the idea of running for re-election out of your head. If, on the other hand, your arrest involved illegalities of a more personal nature that didn’t have to do with your office, then the voters might be more justified in forgiving you.

Also, what is your real motivation for wanting to win your seat back? If it’s really out of a desire to serve your neighbors and make your community a better place, then go for it. But if you miss the prestige, power and paycheck that came with being an elected official, then forget about it. You can’t hide those kind of selfish motives from voters, and they’ll quickly see that you’re being disingenuous.

But let’s talk political campaigning: yes, there are several examples of politicians who have gotten booted out of office because of scandals–drunk driving arrests, cheating on their wives, tax evasion, even drug charges–and come back to win a local election again. And there are a few steps that you can take to help resurrect yourself from a political suicide.

An important word to the wise, though: you need to be realistic about your chances of getting elected to local office again. The majority of politicians who lose their seats because of a scandal simply do not get re-elected to office. If you accept the fact that the odds are against you in any future political campaign and you still want to give it a go, you need to be ready for some very tough campaigning.

You should expect plenty of negative campaigning from your opponent–in fact, he would be silly not to remind everyone in your district about the details surrounding your arrest and scandal. Obviously, trying to ignore the situation and hoping that the voters will forget about what happened is the wrong strategy. Instead, I suggest you tackle the problem head-on, and beat your opponent to the punch.

Here’s what I would do: start campaigning many months before your opponent, and make a point of personally apologizing to as many voters in your district as you can. Get out and start knocking on doors in your ward, looking voters in the eye, and talking to them directly. Let them know that you want to serve them again, that you made some personal mistakes, and that you take full responsibility for those mistakes. Tell them that you’ve worked hard to overcome your own weaknesses, and that you want to work even harder to earn their forgiveness and their trust.

You can’t just rely on a mea-culpa to win your campaign, though; you need to make it clear to the voters why it would benefit them to put you back in the office that you were voted out of. Remind them of the good things that you did when you were in office, and tell them about the ambitious plans that you have to make your community better if they return you to your seat. Show them specific details of what you will do for them, and make it clear to them that you’ll work hard for their best interests.

Be very careful about getting into a mud-slinging match with your opponent. You might know a few unsavory details about your opponent and be very eager to share them with the voters, but this is a dangerous tactic for someone who already got booted out of office because of his own scandal.

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and believe me: you now live in the biggest glass house in the city. Resist any temptation you might have to campaign negatively against your competition, because it will likely backfire and only serve to remind the voters of your own shortcomings.

A well-planned direct mail campaign will also serve to help you, but you need to be prepared to finance much of it from your own pocket; you might discover that many of your previous fundraising sources have dried up since you lost your seat. Obviously, the more financial resources you can invest in your campaign, the more likely you’ll be to convince the voters that they should give you a second chance.

If you have successfully dealt with the personal problems in your own life and you genuinely want to win your seat back because of a desire to help your community and serve your constituents, then I wish you luck in your effort to get re-elected.

Just remember: there are plenty of ways to serve your community without being an elected official, and you shouldn’t judge your ow personal worth by whether or not you hold public office.

As I’ve said before on this site, there are far more important things in the world than political campaigns: your family, your friends, your own personal happiness and satisfaction. Make sure that make those things your top priority over getting re-elected.

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