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From Hobnobbing To Website Colors: Political Newcomers Get Tips

The election of President Donald Trump is inspiring many people to explore a run for public office – especially those who oppose his policies. A new pop-up school in Western Massachusetts – one that teaches skills for social change – is trying to attract potential candidates.

When I walk into a bright community room in downtown Northampton, Ellen Story recognizes me from the years I reported on her work in the Massachusetts legislature.

"You look wonderful! Are you thriving?" she said.

"Oh, you politicians!" I replied with a laugh.

In fairness, Story is not actually campaigning anymore, but she certainly knows how to – she retired after 12 elections over 25 years as a state representative in Amherst.

That’s why she's volunteering for a new pop-up school for political activism, named after abolitionist Sojourner Truth, that holds free workshops around the Pioneer Valley. Story's workshop is on running for office; she's hoping to reach people who are a little bit scared of politics.

"That's almost everybody," she said. "And the people who are completely confident about running, and think they would be a terrific elected official, are often not the people that should be elected."

The first participant Story meets is Susan Voss, a Smith College engineering professor.

"I have followed things that go on. I've spoken up at public meetings," Voss said, "but I never really thought about running for public office until after the elections in November."

Voss has just taken out candidate papers for Northampton school committee – and she’s looking to Ellen Story for practical advice.

"I was just going to try to make some little business cards with my website on it," Voss said.

"What color?" Story asked.

"Well, the website – I have a little background, a blue banner with white writing."

"What kind of blue?" Story pushed.

When Voss pulled out her phone to show photos, Story said, "That's really good."

Story then suggested that Voss not try to include too many details on her business card, like where she stands on issues. "A lot of people are not good readers."

When the workshop started, Voss took a seat in a wide circle of chairs. There was only one other registered participant – occupational therapist Scott Salus, who is considering a run for office in Easthampton. Years ago, he ran for city council in New Jersey on a Green Party platform.

"Did you win?" Story asked.

"No," Salus said.  

"Did you get close?" Story asked.

"No," he repeated, with a laugh. "I got 14 percent of the vote."

Story encouraged him to try again – local politics are much less divisive, she said, than the national scene – and the best way to learn how government works. Of course, there are some notable exceptions to this traditional route, like the current U.S. president.

“He was a complete aberration," Story said. "I would not actually look at Donald Trump as an example.”

For the next hour, Story ran through her campaign tips: make lawn signs simple, handwrite thank-you notes to donors, keep a sense of humor about yourself and try to get photographed at library ribbon cuttings.

"You're not pushy," she said. "You're just interested and concerned and you're there. People eventually think that you would be the kind of person they put their trust and support in." 

Susan Voss had been taking notes – and had her own list of questions and worries.

"How do I knock on enough doors and introduce myself to enough people to get the number of votes I think I need to win?" Voss said. "That part is a little scary."

"That is scary," Story agreed. "And you need to be strategic about that and go in neighborhoods where people vote."

After the workshop, Voss was eager to start collecting signatures to get on the ballot – but Scott Salus was not so sure.

"It's like the level of hobnobbing they're talking about doing," he said, "it just sounds exhausting!"

Still, he hasn't ruled out a run for office. And if he needs another pep talk, Ellen Story is holding another workshop  next month.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.