Seven Common Pitfalls to Avoid as a Candidate Spouse
Shelli Mitchell Gerlach, guest blogger
There aren’t many jobs which can change your life overnight. Being a candidate spouse is one of them. Simply put, the very nature of campaigning for public office is filled with extraordinary experiences and countless trials by fire.
Over the years as a political spouse and consultant, I have had a front-row seat observing seven common pitfalls that have negatively impact candidate spouses. The results can often be disastrous, hurtful, and difficult to overcome.
Fortunately, you don’t have to let them happen to you! Your best modus operandi is to plan ahead for these potential hazards before they become full-blown roadblocks. Whether it’s your first campaign or your fifth, addressing each potential pitfall early on can make the difference between a smoother campaign and a bumpy one laden with unnecessary strife.
Pitfall #1: You’re not “all-in” with the decision to run for office
The underlying tone of any campaign hinges on this one question: are you 100% on board with the decision to run for office? The answer is extremely important as you evaluate your personal commitment and capacity in support – or objection – of this opportunity. Arriving at this decision will require significant conversations between you and your candidate to understand the implications involved. It is absolutely essential that the two of you are united and jointly vested as a team; none of the other facets of campaigning will matter if this one is out of alignment.
Ideally, these conversations should occur long before filing for public office. Sometimes your enthusiastic candidate may prematurely enter a race without thoroughly examining and discussing how it will affect you and your family. If candidacy has already been declared, it is still crucial to understand the implications it will have on your family dynamics, your employment, the family business, personal / professional relationships and other obligations.
Should you jointly determine that running for office would adversely affect your priorities at this time, it is far better to rescind your candidacy early in the campaign than to have it implode in the crucial weeks or days leading up to the election. That is a class-act decision of integrity that will earn respect and high-regard.
The worst scenario by far is your initial agreement to support the run for office only to undermine its success by withholding support later on and/or exhibiting reluctance in your commitment. This may be unintentional but it is truly a form of campaign sabotage that acts like a cancer; it becomes a slow death in which everyone suffers. If you have any reservations, it’s best to voice your concerns and talk it out. It’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed and unsure. Get the information and support you need so that you can be confident in the right decisions for your candidate, yourself and your family. In the world of politics, you really can’t sit on the fence; you’re either all-in or all-out. It really matters and ultimately, it shows.
Pitfall #2: Going into the campaign unprepared
The campaign trail is exhausting work and will rigorously test every aspect of your personal and professional life. Preparing for this season will help you discover gaps and plan accordingly for additional support and resources where needed. Start by assessing the many aspects that touch your life. Here is a starter checklist for your consideration:
- Will you need adjust your work schedule, reduce your work hours, take a leave of absence from your employment or make alternate work arrangements?
- Are your business and personal finances in order?
- Will campaigning expose gaps in responsibilities with your own company or family business?
- Do you need to hire an extra employee?
- What responsibilities will need to be covered at home?
- Will you need extra childcare or dependent care provisions /transportation for your children or other dependents while you are attending campaign functions?
- How about hiring a housekeeper or a handyman to do home maintenance and yard work when neither of you can?
- Any family members or dependents who may need extra support?
- Are there health conditions/scheduled surgeries/treatments/rehabilitation to take into account?
- What about significant life events – - military deployments, weddings, milestone celebrations, impending births, etc.?
- Do you need to hire a speech coach, an image consultant, a political coach, a personal assistant?
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention potentially uncomfortable issues. No one likes to talk about assorted elephants in any room, yet it is absolutely vital prior to any candidacy:
- What is the health of your marriage/relationship? Are there facets of your relationship that need to be addressed?
- Are there any issues to your personal or professional lifestyle that are incongruent with your campaign platform? How will you handle those discrepancies?
- Are there difficult or private circumstances, past or present, that could see the light of intense public scrutiny (e.g., arrests, convictions, marital affairs, tax evasion, substance use, law suits, slander and defamation records, ethical violations, suspensions, unfavorable testimonies from work colleagues or friends, neighbor disputes, etc.,)? How will you respond when they become public?
- How prepared are you to respond to inquiries regarding any aspect of your history, personal or public comments, correspondence, and posts on social media?
Anticipating potential snags before they become problems is simply a fundamental key to any risk management plan in your personal or professional life. Truth is when you become a public figure, both strengths and deficiencies are magnified – -just one look at the headline news feeds and social media outlets confirms this truth. Preparation will go a long way to help you adjust to the new normalcy of campaign life.
When possible, reach out and talk with veteran candidate spouses and learn from their experiences. They can provide valuable insights and advise you on the practical aspects of your role in the campaign.
It’s also a good idea to retain the services of a trusted attorney. It’s amazing what kind of perceived conflicts and situations come out of the woodwork once the campaign becomes the newest “game in town”.
Pitfall #3: Expecting a clear-cut road map to victory
There are best practices and methods that help candidates gain the edge needed toward election. However, the wide range of political variables keeps the campaign from becoming an exact science.
As a candidate spouse, it will serve you well to get comfortable with stretches of ambiguity and pockets of uncertainty. What you need to know is that well-mapped plans often change mid-stream – - and sometimes the changes occur multiple times within the same 24 hours.
Fortunately, your campaign consultants will help steer the necessary course corrections and keep the momentum moving forward. You’ll find that morning meetings with your candidate and consultants can help you map out the events for the day. Two-way check-ins throughout day is immensely helpful in staying on top of the latest changes. At night, it’s tempting to simply flop into bed after an exhausting day, but simply taking a couple of minutes to assess the daily activities can help you manage future days more effectively. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.
Pitfall #4: Projecting an image of someone you’re not
Let me ask you: who are the political spouses whom you greatly admire? Have you thought about what makes them so engaging and likeable? Do you know their timeless secret?
It’s simple: authenticity.
Well-adjusted political spouses tend to be very comfortable in their own skin and aren’t afraid to be themselves. They understand that they don’t need to be a policy expert or the most entertaining speaker in order to garner respect. Established spouses understand not only their own strengths and attributes but acknowledge their limitations. “Being real” is an engaging part of their personal story that makes them so relatable.
We’ve all witnessed the embarrassment of a poor soul trying to be someone they aren’t. It’s an epic fail! Why? Because it is very difficult to garner trust and respect when people can see through the façade. It makes people suspicious, and frankly, there’s already enough of that in the political arena that we’re trying to correct.
The truth is that only you can portray your best authentic self. Sharing your own story creates personable warmth to the campaign that simply cannot be duplicated. Identify your strongest attributes and bring them to the forefront. Share your compelling story! It will draw greater interest in you and your candidate plus deepen the engagement with your voter base. In the sage words of Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
Pitfall #5: Neglecting to have your own support system in place.
Candidates have a wide variety of advisors, mentors, campaign schools and resources of support ready for their use. This is not always the case for candidate spouses. Often, spouses are left to sort out these processes on their own without adequate support.
The demands on your time and energy are exponentially greater during campaign season. You’ll be in a far better position to weather the highs and lows when you have a strong network of support. Start gathering your network of people and resources who can help shoulder some of the stresses and obligations.
The key here is to identify areas where you’ll need the greatest support and design actions that give you the support you need. Tap on family, friends and neighbors who absolutely love to help and are willing to offer their talents. Here are some areas to think about:
- Are you a style emergency waiting to happen? Let your fashionista gurus help you coordinate smart wardrobe ensembles, hair design and make-up.
- Need to get organized? Recruit your super talented organizational genie to set up routines and help you maintain your systems.
- Are there friends or neighbors who absolutely love to cook? Let them whip up (and deliver) healthy delicious meals for your family.
- Got a neighborhood teen looking for a summer job? Employ them to do your yard work, babysit or do light housekeeping.
- Who are the supportive ears you can call upon – day or night – when you’re frustrated or having a bad day? Put them on speed-dial.
- Would it be helpful to have the guidance of a coach, counselor or therapist? Schedule regular appointments with them.
- Don’t want your home phone to be the campaign hotline? Install a second phone line and messaging center that is solely dedicated for receiving campaign calls and inquiries.
Pitfall #6: Leaving Your Personal Boundaries and Margins Unsecured:
Campaigning requires an exponential bandwidth in everything – especially your time and personal resources. A large of part requires your presence at campaign events, fundraisers, after-hours business socials, and community celebrations along with a demanding list for personal appearances at Eagle Scout ceremonies, local athletic award banquets and more.
Realistically, you can’t accept every invitation and attend every event. Nor should you. However, it’s important to consider and prioritize the campaign events and activities where your presence is crucial. Voters expect the candidate’s family to make a reasonable number of public appearances. These opportunities help them to further gauge the candidate’s electability, and really, they just want to see the ‘whole package’.
These are some very practical situations where you may want to evaluate your family’s boundaries and develop margins:
- What are our main priorities? How do we make sure they don’t fall through the cracks?
- As the candidate spouse, what are my obligations? Can I fulfill them?
- Should our home be reserved as a haven of respite or should it be ‘campaign central’?
- Should the kids be involved with campaign activities? If so, how much should their involvement entail?
- Will our children be treated differently at school, religious centers, or in the neighborhood because of our candidacy? How will we handle that?
- What if our child’s band concert or swimming meet overlaps a campaign event?
- Should we establish a second phone line for constituent and media calls?
- Can I shop in peace at my regular grocery store?
- How do I handle an upset voter who dumps his/her complaints upon me at my son’s baseball game?
- What if a curious but well-meaning person wants to talk about my candidate’s policies and I don’t have time to engage with them? Am I required to speak on behalf of the campaign?
- Suddenly, we are receiving more requests and invitations for appearances at special events and milestone occasions; what criteria will we use to select our attendance?
- Must we always talk about the campaign at every waking moment?
- Can we ever shut the phone off at our house?
Undoubtedly, you will experience increased tension between the push of campaign obligations and the pull of your domestic and work life. Setting reasonable boundaries and safeguarding your margins will help you navigate the optional and the non-negotiable. Sometimes you have to pick your battles in order to win the war. It’s okay to say “no” to good or even great opportunities in order to say “yes” to the right ones. That makes for good political and domestic policy.
Pitfall #7: Not having a good sense of humor.
Wherever the campaign trail takes you, you will meet constituents along the way with all sorts of personalities and value systems.
Since the political arena is the convergence of people and ideas, inevitably you are going to experience a vast spectrum of difficult challenges. For example, an editorial may portray a less-flattering piece about your candidate. A fundraising event falls short of donation goals. Or on the personal side, perhaps you had to miss your child’s recital, or you encountered a well-intentioned person who mentioned that your red jacket is too bold and would look better on someone else.
While it’s easy to be offended, the better option is to look at difficult situations as opportunities to shine. Effective humor is a great equalizer and a healthy way to maintain your perspective. People who exercise a good sense of humor are often perceived as approachable, trustworthy and capable of leadership. It’s an artful quality that is charming to your constituents and disarming to your critics. Learn to use humor in appropriate and effective ways; it really is a great connector for bridging all kinds of gaps.
Shelli Mitchell Gerlach is a political coach and author of the forthcoming book “Smart Domestic Policy: The Capitol Spouse’s Essential Guide for Setting Your Political House in Order.” As a legislative spouse and mother of two, Shelli believes that life in the political fishbowl is best navigated with supportive friends and family over a great cup of java. A self-described “evangelist for the REAL running mates”, you can connect with her at Shelli@CapitolSpouses.com. Find more practical tips and updates at http://www.capitolspouses.com or follow her on Twitter @CapitolSpouses.