5 questions about running for state office

Jerod and Sara Patterson run a Texas-based political consulting firm. Their work has earned more than 20 national awards and they were recently named 2016’s “Most Valuable Consultants” by Capitol Inside for their undefeated record at the state level with numerous candidates. The couple met in 2005 through the Witherspoon Fellowship and now reside in the Texas Hill Country with their three children. They are active members of their local Episcopal parish, where Sara is president of the church school board and Jerod serves on the vestry.

Much of our broader media culture is fixated on national politics. In light of this, what is the importance and value of state elected officials to the daily lives of Americans? What is their impact on the communities in their states?

Sara: Many people don’t realize the impact that state and local officials have on their daily lives – it’s your state legislators, county commissions, city councils and school boards that make the lion’s share of decisions regarding your roads, public safety, taxes, and children’s education. While controversial and high-profile issues are often more prevalent in national politics, these typically involve more theatrics than solutions. Political involvement at the state and local level often provides greater opportunity for substantive contributions.

Jerod: I find the caliber of policymaking and dedication to problem solving immeasurably higher at the state and local level than in Washington, D.C., these days. In recent years, soundbites and electoral posturing have increasingly driven policymaking at the national level to the detriment of quality governance. At the state and local level, politics are closer to the daily lives, problems, and concerns of families and businesses. If you fail to solve a problem, you have to answer to your neighbors.

What qualities do you think are vital in a candidate pursuing state political office?

Sara: Regardless of the office they seek, we find that the best candidates are diligent and hardworking, and balance their passion with a pragmatic dedication to achieving results.

Jerod: Voters tend to tire of candidates or officeholders who value showmanship at the expense of actually accomplishing something in office. Ambition is an important ingredient; in fact, it’s probably necessary to endure the long hours and contentious episodes that accompany public service. But, ambition really does need to be paired with policy goals and a disciplined, realistic approach to enacting them.

When someone is considering seeking state office, what immediate questions do you have for them? What first steps do you recommend to them?

Sara: First, we want to know if they have what it takes. Do you have the time, the family support, the background, the donor base or financial wherewithal? These are all important parts of what makes a quality candidate and a winning campaign. Then we look at the race in question. Is it a good opportunity and can we identify a path to victory given the field of candidates? Open seats often provide the greatest opportunities, but incumbent challenges may as well. In each of the past three elections, we have unseated sitting legislators, including a finalist for a Trump cabinet post.

Jerod: We also want to understand what motivates a candidate. One of the most embarrassing moments in political history occurred when Ted Kennedy was unable to answer why he wanted to be president. We never want this to happen to one of our clients, which is why we help them to identify their own motivations and then craft a strategy that pays homage to those goals. By weaving those goals together with the most important issues and candidate attributes in the voters’ minds, we help our candidates find a message that is authentic to themselves and also resonates with voters.

What impact does our broader political atmosphere have on state politics? Have you seen this change over the past several years?

Sara: National issues drive the political mood during an election, and voters typically have a hard time distinguishing between the domains of congress, state legislatures, and local entities. That poses a real challenge for state and local candidates to speak to issues that are important to voters while also advancing a meaningful policy agenda respective to the challenges facing their office.

Jerod: Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local. I’m not so sure that is the case anymore. Think about where people get their news today. Is it from the local newspaper (if one even still exists) or local television newscast? Or from national media outlets like cable news or websites, reposts on social media, talk radio, and the like? Down-ballot elections have increasingly become nationalized, or at least framed by national themes and fissures as referenda on the president, congress, national parties, or incumbency in general. The continued decline of civil society has produced state and local electorates that are disconnected from issues of local importance, which may render it impossible to win an election for local office based on local concerns. Democratically, this is a real tragedy and one that needs a course correction.

What most motivates you to work with state politicians?

Sara: We are blessed to have the opportunity to work with some very good people. They do the hard work of putting their names on the ballot, reputations on the line, and enduring sometimes bruising campaigns. They are passionate about their communities and care about people. We have the great responsibility but also the great honor of helping them navigate the political landscape, win election, and do the good work they feel called to do.

Jerod: People have asked us why we focus our practice on state and local politics. “Don’t you want to go to Washington?” And we really don’t! I can look back over the past several elections and point to meaningful policy gains that have directly resulted from our work. In just three elections, we elected nearly ten percent of the Republican House caucus in Texas, entire county commissions, numerous state judges, and have passed or defeated over $1 billion in bond measures. Our clients touch the lives of families and businesses in nearly half the counties in Texas, and I am in a unique position to help them think through, develop, and implement policy. As a married couple and as business partners, Sara and I want to honor the talents, gifts, and opportunities that God has entrusted to us. Those opportunities may change in the future, but for now, I take great satisfaction in helping our clients build strong communities and a vibrant state, and in knowing that our work really matters.