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    Barriers to local politics: Viable candidates opt out

    They say all politics is local, but you wouldn’t know it from the disproportionate coverage of D.C. power brokers. If the past two years have shown us anything, it’s the outsized impact that local officials can have — not only on our daily lives, but on American democracy itself.

    There are over 500,000 elected positions in America, 96 percent of which are down-ballot seats like city councils and state legislatures. Given all that potential to affect local change, why don’t more candidates look like the communities they seek to represent?

    new national survey set out to explore this very question, and one finding jumped out: candidates who experienced poverty in their youth felt more constrained by the barriers to running and winning than those who grew up on higher rungs of the economic ladder. And this disparity persisted no matter how much the children from poorer households later achieved.

    I look back at my own life and see glimpses of this dynamic. I was raised by a gritty, single mother of three in a trailer park on the eastern desert outskirts of Las Vegas. Every day, we scraped and struggled to get by, but thanks to her perseverance and determination, we survived.

    My mother’s many selfless sacrifices gave my siblings and me the opportunity to access a better life, and it instilled in us a desire to serve and empower others. That hunger to serve, however, manifested in the traditional ways you might expect: All three of us ended up serving through the military and national service, not politics.

    The idea that running for office could itself be a form of service, never mind one that could directly improve people’s lives, never even occurred to us.

    Far too often, it never occurs to the tens of thousands of young people across the country who come from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds.

    Why is that?

    Peter Levine, Associate Dean at Tufts University conducted a survey of over 700 candidates for local office in 2021 that might shed some light. He asked about the degree to which concerns over credentials, fundraising networks, economic hardship, or public scrutiny might cause an otherwise viable candidate to hesitate to run. The starkest differences appeared when factoring in childhood economic adversity.

    Almost half of the people who experienced poverty and received welfare when they were children — regardless of their race, gender, or level of education — doubted their credentials were good enough, compared to only 15 percent of those who never had. One-third of those who received welfare as children were anxious about even being able to afford a run for office, compared to a mere six percent of their peers who never had.

    No matter how far someone has risen since childhood, past economic adversity casts a shadow over the prospective candidate’s belief in their ability to run successfully. 

    The optimal word there being the candidate’s belief in their ability. Concerns about barriers to running had no correlation to their actual rates of success.  

    That’s why we launched the New Power Project as a national effort to support candidates who’ve grown up in under-resourced communities. Who better to advocate for the trailer park than the kids who grew up there?

    Having seen firsthand what the alternative could be, my sister now works tirelessly educating underprivileged youth in the Denver public school system. There are thousands of talented folks just like her across the country who are actively working to change the broken systems that failed them in their youth. These passionate servant leaders may be self-selecting out of running for office based on unjustified fears. New Power is focused on removing those doubts.

    The first step in solving a problem is to recognize it. If all politics are local, then let’s build a system where our political leaders actually represent all of us.

    Alberto Ramos is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and currently serves as director of talent development at New Politics, a bipartisan organization that recruits, develops, and elects servant leaders who put community and country first.

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