I first learned about Councilmember Letitia Clark in July of this year and before we spoke, I was already intrigued by her. As a single mom and full-time employee, she ran for and won a seat on the Tustin, California City Council in Orange County where Black residents make up less than 2% of the population. Her win makes her the first Black woman to hold a seat on the council. After an evening phone call with its share of technical difficulties, I came away inspired by Councilmember Clark and eager to share her story. I hope you enjoy her reflections on running for office. After you check out her advice, tips, and strategies below, I hope you also consider sharing her story with someone else.
Arielle Simoncelli: What inspired you to run for office?
Letitia Clark: I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in public service or politics and my first job out of college was with a Councilmember working as a legislative aide. For me, that’s really what changed everything because during that time, Hurricane Katrina hit and I wound up staying during the storm and pretty much rose through the ranks very quickly as the lowest person on the totem pole. At 23, right out of college, I was getting coffee and donuts and was very happy to be employed. All my colleagues at the time left during the storm, mainly because they were astute enough to know the dangers. They didn’t really consider staying because they had families and I was a young person, I didn’t have any commitments so I elected to stay. Over the course of a couple of months, my boss at the time, who was the Councilmember, promoted me to the Chief of Staff.
Arielle Simoncelli: What, if any, were your greatest obstacles during your run for office?
Letitia Clark: The most difficult part was actually being a Democrat, even while these positions are supposed to be nonpartisan. Some people could get past my race, my age, and my family status, but it was hard for them to reconcile voting for me because there was a D next to my name. For many of them, it took a lot of convincing that I would not make these vast and radical changes once I got on the council, that I would hold true some of the things that the city has always made traditional.
It was very interesting for me to consistently come up against that barrier, and really having to defend why I chose and have been a lifelong Democrat. I ran into several people that said they wanted to support me but they just wished I was a Republican or an Independent. They knew it was supposed to be a nonpartisan race but they just couldn’t get past that. In the end, those were the people that I called back and visited at their homes.
I circled back with them, I had coffee with them, I talked with them over and over again, and convinced them that I was the right person for them to vote for and told them to tell their friends and their church members, and whoever they play cards with on the weekend, and things like that. I think it fared well in the end because I came in second out of the three spots, but I could not have anticipated that this would have been my biggest barrier, but it was.
Arielle Simoncelli: What came as a surprise to you, if anything, during your campaign?
Letitia Clark: I really thought I knew what it entailed. What was surprising to me was how much reflection I had to do with myself and how mentally draining it could be. Because really, it was like I was on stage everyday like I was on this interview every day, and if anyone can relate with job searching and going on interview after interview after interview, it’s draining after a while. You have to look your best, sound your best, and just be on your A game. I felt like I was doing that for a year, and I underestimated the toll it would take on me mentally.
Everyone said it though, “You need to rely on your family, you’re going to need to take breaks.” But I totally underestimated it. That mental health component is so important, finding ways to de-stress and unplug are so important, especially if you’re a person, who most people are when they run for office, they're all in, and they don’t get into something to do it halfway.
After maybe nine months of campaigning rigorously, it was just very difficult to make sure that I was taking care of myself mentally. Now that I think back, and if I run again for re-election, there are so many things that I will do differently to make sure that I’m taking care of myself, and unplugging and de-stressing as often as possible.
Arielle Simoncelli: How does being a single mom, working full-time, and being on the council impact your life?
Letitia Clark: It’s not just the council meetings and the work that you do to prepare for them, it’s all the committees that you’re appointed to and the additional task forces that you may have to work on. I try to balance it, I don’t shy away from bringing my kids to things and I really held onto that philosophy, even before I was elected because I was a busy, working mom before this all started. I didn’t always have a sitter every time there was a community event that I wanted to attend or a round table meeting or something like that. I would bring my kids.
I have snacks in tow and workbooks in tow all the time, but I’ve seen my kids develop from me exposing them to these events. They’re always asking what we’re talking about, they have a greater understanding of how our local government works. I really do believe it's not because I sit down and talk with them about it. It's because they see it playing out right in front of their eyes.
Arielle Simoncelli: What fundraising strategies did you employ that you think others should consider? Do you have recommendations regarding that?
- Find a professional that can help you, that can get through all of the logistics of running a successful campaign. Otherwise, you really are relying on a shoestring budget and you’re relying on volunteers that can be 100% in some days and 10% other days and if you have a full-time job, it’s very hard to do all by yourself.
- You have to call every single person that you know and you can't be shy about it. If I could do it over, I would have maintained every contact that I had. I would have kept good phone numbers on people, good email addresses on people. Everyone that I’ve ever met because that’s really what you have to do when you run for office. If you're even thinking about it, get your list together now, make sure that it's updated.
- Anyone that thinks that they are going to run for office and the money is going to come from organizations that support their ideals and their philosophies, no. This is not the case. I think I had maybe $20,000 raised from friends and family and coworkers. I had to do that and exhaust my list until the organizations in the area would really take me seriously and say, "We will write you a $5,000 check." Even the $1,000 and the $500 checks, those were still difficult. They still wanted to see, "Did you call everyone that you know? We want to know that you raised some money on your own." They want to see that these candidates have some skin in the game. If you're not independently wealthy or willing to take out a loan to fund your campaign, then you have to rely on everyone you've had contact with. Sometimes, those are the hardest people to convince that money will really help you win.
Arielle Simoncelli: What were your go-to resources that you think others should know about?
Letitia Clark: One thing that really helped me was the Emerge America program even though when I went through the program two years before I was planning to run. What was so valuable for me was this cohort of women, all very like-minded, all very interested in running for office, they made sure that we created a bond very early in the program. After the six-month program was complete, we were calling each other Emerge sisters. This was a core group that was better to get in contact with, even better than my family at times. My family, although they love me and they wanted to support me, they didn't always know or understand what it took to run for office.
Arielle Simoncelli: Would you also say that these connections, trainings, and resources helped you as a woman of color running for office?
Letitia Clark: Yes. I think it was important, especially because Emerge prides themselves on promoting women of color running for office. I just felt like other organizations, especially out here in Orange County, wanted to try and diminish the fact that I was a woman of color running for office. They weren't necessarily highlighting it. I felt like Emerge, while I was running, made every effort to mention, "She'll be the first African American woman to serve on this council. It's Black History Month. We're recognizing Letitia Clark. She's running for office in Tustin." They made it as though this is something to be proud of, this is something to recognize, and it is.