Keeping the community first while in office

Keeping the community first while in office
Photo: Penn Live

Photo: Penn Live

COUNCILMember CORNELIUS JOHNSON

Cornelius Johnson, 28, is a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania City Councilmember who manages to create change in his community while also working a full-time job. When asked how he does it, he mentioned that "Some days are manageable and some are overwhelming." Nevertheless, Councilmember Johnson shows up for his community. Read more to find out about his advice, tips, and strategies for running for office and getting the job done!

HOW DID YOU IDENTIFY THE REQUIREMENTS NEEDED TO RUN?

I needed 100 signatures from registered voters. I was close with the City Clerk since I first started in the city as the Health Inspector, so when I told him I was interested in running, he told me who to talk to, including the head of elections for the city. Also, one of my friends has been a young advocate helping people campaign so she helped me get started too.

At the very beginning, I did my own website. I never made a website in my life, but I went to Wix, took pictures, and set up the platform. I knew the one thing going for me, and against me at the same time, was that I was young and I hadn't been involved in politics, so I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing! I wanted to start off professional and legit. Once I announced, I could refer people to my website and my social media pages, which got the buzz started. From there, people knew enough about me to feel comfortable signing the petition. 

Basically, you can pass out your petitions and get others to collect signatures for you, but you don’t know if they’re going to fill it out right or get actual registered voters. There are a lot of things that can go wrong and at the end of the day, people want to see the candidate. So I controlled the petition process and had a few others collecting signatures, but I got the majority of signatures by knocking on doors and going to the Broad Street Market and different gatherings. 

WHAT, IF ANY, WERE YOUR GREATEST OBSTACLES DURING YOUR CAMPAIGN AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM? 

Harrisburg has different sections...and I’ve seen the way the city is broken up....My goal was to break through divides and build relationships with various groups and organizations to establish a coalition. A lot of my council members say I’m too nice, but I think we’ve allowed petty personal relationships to stop us from getting great things done. While I was campaigning, I spent a lot of time reaching out to people and having conversations about what I was doing. We figured out things we could work on and things we could agree on. There's a lot more that we agree on than the things we disagree on. Through that, I’ve been able to keep those same relationships.

NOW THAT YOU’RE IN OFFICE, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE ENVIRONMENT? WHAT'S COMING EASY? WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?

My biggest challenge right now is trying to get my constituents more engaged...We have poor attendance at our meetings, we have our standard five or six people, unless there is something big that catches in the media then we might have twenty to thirty people. So I’ve been trying to let people know what’s going on through conversations in person or through social media. Our meetings are recorded on YouTube, so I’ll post it on Facebook and say - hey if you missed the meeting, check it out. I post our agendas before the meetings and send out reminders on Facebook. I realized that I had more engagement through social media than I did with people at the meetings just by posting about what the city is doing or about events taking place. People feel like I’m keeping them informed. Sometimes I’ll get random questions in my email and I feel good that I’m able to provide that update. I also put the burden back on the people…If I see different discussions about the city on social media, I’ll tell them to check out the budget or provide a link to where they can find the information so they can get familiar with where they should be looking to find the facts rather than speculating.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE THINKING ABOUT TAKING THE NEXT STEP TO RUN?

Just do it. There are so many ways that you can doubt yourself. Going through the process of engaging people is a great thing whether you win or lose. Now you’re connected with people you wouldn’t have been before. You’re getting to know your neighbors; people don’t do that anymore. You start to build a base and take that information whether you win or lose and give it to someone who can do something about it...It bewilders me to think about the amount of seats that go unchallenged. There are people in there for so long and no one runs against them. It makes people get so comfortable inside their role. So just do it, win or lose. 

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