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Out of Office

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If you’ve ever thought about running for public office, now’s the time. And not just because of the Tennessee Waltz and last week’s arrests of four lawmakers.

Political action group New Path recently held a panel discussion titled “Who Wants To Be a Candidate: Making the Decision To Run for Office” to encourage younger leaders to think about seeking office.

“We organized the event because the 2006 election is coming up,” said New Path co-founder Eric Robertson. “The filing date is sometime in February. What we wanted to do was put it out there so people who were thinking about it could start going through the process, rather than putting their campaign together in January.”

New Path brought together Memphis City Schools board commissioner Tomeka Hart, former city attorney and school board candidate Robert Spence, WLOK talk-show host and former city court clerk candidate Janis Fullilove, and state representative Brian Kelsey to talk about what potential candidates should know if they’re thinking of running.

The panel spoke about marathon campaign sessions, begging friends and acquaintances for money, and stolen roadside signs.

“I gained a new respect [for politicians],” said Spence. “It puts a lot of wear and tear on you. I lost 15 pounds ... but that might not have been a bad thing.”

Kelsey called running for office the most stressful thing you could ever do. “I’ve run marathons,” he said. “They weren’t that stressful. My first year of law school wasn’t that stressful.”

As relatively new pols, members of the panel needed to get their name into the public arena.

“Not all voters are abreast of the issues. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you've graduated from high school. It only matters what your last name is,” said Fullilove.

Spence, in particular, struggled with name recognition. “I was not raised here. I didn’t go to high school here. Until I became the city attorney, I just lived my life,” he said. “To have even a whisper of a chance, I had to do all I could do to raise my profile in this community.”

Spence was amazed during early voting how many people still did not know who he was. “I’m out there running myself ragged and ... many citizens said, ‘Who are you?’”

Which is part of the reason for New Path’s 2006 push.

Last year, members of the County Commission — Walter Bailey, Julian Bolton, and Cleo Kirk, to be specific — essentially sued their own constituents over term limits that, in 1994, county voters were 81 percent in favor of enacting. If the commissioners win the suit, Michael Hooks and Marilyn Loeffel will also be granted stays of execution as well. If they lose, all five seats will be up for grabs.

“We want to encourage people to think about [running] and not just concede that they don’t have a chance,” said Robertson. “We want people to know that for the first time, they won’t have to face an incumbent. It’s the best opportunity to run.”

Especially in a city more comfortable voting for the devil they know over the devil they don’t. Actually, forget the whole devil thing. But we definitely need some new blood in our political arena. Willie Herenton has been Memphis’ mayor for 13 years. Janet Hooks, Jack Sammons, and Myron Lowery have been on the City Council for 13 years; E.C. Jones and Barbara Swearengen Holt have served for 10 years and Tom Marshall for 18 years.

But that’s just the beginning. County commissioner Bailey, who wants to keep his position so much that he’s sued for it, was first elected in 1971. If his term were a person, it would almost be old enough to run for president.

For those interested in running for office, New Path will continue its “Who Wants To Be a Candidate” series with a discussion of the local political landscape June 26th at the Central Library.

And some final words of advice from Hart, the young lawyer who managed to unseat Hubon Sandridge after 17 years on the school board: “Make sure it’s something you have a heart for,” she said. “Don’t run because it looks like fun or you want to be on TV every day. ... You can make a difference without running for office.”

To make a difference, you can be a volunteer or an activist or, in certain recent cases, even a member of law enforcement. 

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