Wanting More Power, Public Employees Run for Office

"If you want to have an influence on policy, then the best way to do so is by being an elected official."
August 13, 2018
Virginia Del. Elizabeth Guzman, right, is also Alexandria, Va.'s division chief for Administrative Services for the Center for Adult Services. (AP/Steve Helber)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

While state and local government employees have the power to change things, they are limited by the resources and rules set by elected officials. This truism is leading more of them to run for office.

Many have launched campaigns with the hope of using what they’ve learned in their current or prior government positions to help the citizenry as a whole.

“After the 2016 election, more and more people realized the linkage between elections and public policy,” says Doug Chapin, director of the University of Minnesota’s Election Academy.

Because 40 states have part-time legislatures, many public employees can keep their jobs if they win. That’s what Elizabeth Guzman did.

She beat a longtime Republican incumbent in November for a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates. But she still works for her city as a division chief, overseeing its programs for adults in need, including senior citizens and the disabled. When there are budget gaps, she says, frontline workers are left to face the repercussion of cuts without any control over how and where they are made.

“For me, being able to sit at the table where the decisions are made, and to have an impact, is very important,” she says.

Jennifer Caroll Foy, a public defender for Arlington County, also joined the Virginia Legislature last November. Mike Belosky, a former buildings and ground superintendent for Chemung County, N.Y., is running for a seat in the county legislature. One early representative of this trend was Norm Thurston, who had been director of Utah's Office of Health Care Statistics and was elected to the state legislature a few years ago.

"I’ve always been interested in policy. And it seems to me that if you want to have an influence on policy, then the best way to do so is by being an elected official,” says Thurston.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the realm of K-12 education. This year, anger over the state of education funding prompted teacher protests -- in some cases, statewide strikes. Many of them led to incremental changes, but they left a lot of teachers feeling like they could do more.

“The walkouts were a catalyst for educators to run for office to fix the state and local governments that failed them,” says American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “Teachers want a political voice to secure a safe and welcoming environment for their kids, and they also want to reverse the logic of economic austerity that has made crumbling classrooms and torn textbooks the norm.”

According to the American Federation of Teachers, about 300 of its members are running for elected office this year or next -- almost three times the usual number.

“If I win, I’ll have more of a say in the budget for public education," says Cyndi Ralston, a second grade teacher running for the Oklahoma Legislature.

Oklahoma, where a statewide teachers’ strike lasted nine days in April, is likely the most extreme example of teachers pushing for power in the legislature. There are currently 99 teachers in that state running for one of the 159 positions in the legislature. Some of them still face runoffs, but there is potential for a record-breaking number of seats to be filled by educators.

The pipeline of teachers running in Oklahoma might be so large because it’s one of the most underfunded states in the nation in terms of education. Until the walkout, educators there went about a decade without a raise. Even with the $6,000 raises that resulted from their protests, their pay still lags behind many states. What’s more, some schools can’t even afford to buy textbooks.

But the teachers running for office don’t exclusively care about education. John Mannion, a New York state Senate candidate who has been a science teacher for 25 years, says he hopes to achieve ethics reform and campaign finance reform as well as address issues that grew out of his experience as a science teacher -- like energy and ecology.

And, he argues that many of the skills he acquired as a teacher can make him a strong legislator: “I’m a good people manager and negotiator, and I’ve had to learn to think quickly on my feet.”

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