Will you run? See what got Lan Diep to the City Council
Photo: Vinh Nguyen

Photo: Vinh Nguyen

Councilmember Lan Diep

Lan Diep is a former civil legal aid attorney turned City Councilmember from San José, California. Councilmember Diep ran his first campaign after a seat opened that prompted a special election in 2015. He lost that election by 13 votes but came back to win his second race by 12 votes the following year. Like many other elected officials, his greatest obstacles during his campaigns were fundraising, overcoming self-doubt, and building a strong team and plan. Councilmember Diep is the first U.S.-born Vietnamese-American to serve on the City Council in San José. Keep reading to see how he overcame the challenges that came with running for office. 

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO RUN FOR OFFICE? 

I’ve always had an interest in politics, especially as a kid watching the State of the Union addresses - I remember that was very big at my house. My parents were Vietnamese refugees when they came to America. We had help, we were given opportunities, and we succeeded. At the same time, we were outsiders because they spoke English with limited proficiency. I remember as a kid, my English was better than my parents’ so I would be the one helping them with prescriptions, credit card companies, and billing inquiries. I did that for my parents’ friends as well, so I was thinking to myself that there is a need in my community to have representatives who understand the levers of power in local, state and federal government.

As a Vietnamese kid, your parents don’t want you to go into politics. They want you to become a lawyer, an engineer, or a doctor, and I think a large reason for that is because, at least in the context of Asian people, we’ve been greatly disappointed by our political leaders. The rise of communism led to great upheaval in Asia. There was backstabbing, and anyone who expressed resistance was labeled an enemy of the people and were singled out by the state. As a result, Vietnamese people have a great distrust of politics and the political process. I thought if that is the mindset of Vietnamese people or other Asians, then we especially need Asian people to run for office. 

I went to these ‘candidate in training’ courses as a young adult, but I never thought I’d run because you go into these courses and they tell you campaigns are about fundraising. A professional fundraiser said to me, “I will not work with you as a candidate unless you can raise $10,000 on your own.  If you cannot raise $10,000 by yourself, you don’t have enough people who believe in you and you’re not a viable candidate.” I asked myself who I knew in my network and it didn’t add up to me getting $10,000, so with that, I thought I would never run.

Was there anything that surprised you during your campaigns? 

It shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was surprised how tribal people can be. People endorse not so much because they look at a candidate and are thoughtful about who they endorse, but maybe they do so because they belong to the same group. Perhaps they are Republican or Democrat, share their views on issues or share one of the big backers. But basically, if you get a major endorsement everyone follows suit because you’re the front runner, and it’s not so much about going around and getting judged on your merits. That was frustrating for me. For my first City Council race, I got the endorsements that I wanted. Then when I came back for the second race, people told me that I was the better candidate, but they couldn’t support me because I wasn’t the incumbent. People don’t want to put their names behind what they perceive to be a losing proposition. That was frustrating for me because I think if you’re in a position of power and influence, you should wield that influence in a meaningful way and I think a lot of people simply get on the bandwagon. 

I really believe, at least at the local level —when you’re running for school board, City Council, mayor, or even county supervisor – you should be able to run as “Joe Citizen” and not have any pedigree or any institutional backing. If you’re just a person who wants to make a difference in your community, you should be viable with a dream and significant effort.

I didn’t want to start out the gate being $20,000-$30,000 in debt, not knowing if I could raise that much money, and so I decided against hiring a political consultant. I trusted my instincts and drew from the experiences I’ve had working on different political campaigns, most notably, the 2012 Obama campaign. I applied those experiences to my own campaign and it served me well. But in the heat of the moment, people told me I was kidding myself and too arrogant to know better because I didn’t hire a consultant.   

Money is a large barrier for a lot of people, do you have any funding strategies that you used or recommendations for others? 

The big lesson for me is that people want to be part of something bigger, and if you understand that, you will realize that your potential donor pool is a lot bigger than you would think initially. The people who will be there for you are your family, your friends, college roommates, and coworkers from all the jobs you’ve ever had. If you’ve made some effort to maintain those relationships, you should ask them for financial and volunteer support because people want to be a part of something greater than themselves. I learned through two years of consecutive campaigns and leaning on the same people, that it was friends and family who came out to help me win.

Discipline is important in terms of call time. Once you know you want to run you should be diligent about attending events and getting your name out there, meeting the movers and shakers and the people who are a part of the donor class before making that hard ask for money. Be gregarious and work a room to get contacts and build your list.

What do you wish you would have known, if anything, before starting your new position in office? 

I wish I would have known that there is a lot more inertia to public service and government than I originally thought. There are things that you just don’t see when you’re not in the middle of it, and you can criticize elected officials for not doing enough, for not being efficient enough, but then you realize, once you’re in there, that you will face those same obstacles. Maybe you will be more efficient in the sense that you care more and won’t let the ball drop, but those same barriers are there; that’s just bureaucracy. Once you get in you try to champion the issues you ran on and you realize there are obstacles outside of your control. If you know that ahead of time, maybe you won’t be as frustrated or disappointed and you might not overcommit when you’re campaigning because you think you can do more than you actually can. 

There are also physical rigors of the job of being in elected office that you just don’t realize when you’re a candidate. When you’re running, you’re working around the clock, knocking on doors and asking for money, making phone calls to voters, showing up at events to be seen… it’s an insane time commitment. And you think that it’ll all get better once you win, but once you win, you’re being pulled in a million different directions. There are people who want to introduce themselves to you, people who want to ask you to support a particular issue…your days are filled with numerous meetings and endless events. 

Our council meeting is once a week in San José but there are also committee meetings and boards you get assigned to. I’m on about 14 different boards and committees and each one has its own agenda with accompanying documents that I have to read and prepare for so I can vote intelligently. Every person who requests a meeting generally leaves me with a packet, info sheet, or binder, and there’s not enough time to read everything and still be the figurehead elected officials are expected to be (showing up at ribbon cuttings and any number of events happening around the city that you’re invited to attend because you’re the elected representative). 

I incorrectly believed that after the campaign, I could avoid the politics and focus on the substance of policymaking. Candidates say they don't want to be partisan, that they’re an independent thinker… and I strive for that, but the people in and around elected office are still political creatures. On my City Council, you need 6 votes to get something passed. Everyone has to work together, even though we might have been on opposing sides during campaign season.

But there’s an undercurrent that I don’t enjoy, of sizing each other up. Colleagues anticipate that perhaps one day we’re going to run against each other for something else, state assembly or the mayor’s seat, and this becomes our cohort of potential future challengers for higher office. So there’s this frenemy element to it where we want each other to succeed, but you don’t want a colleague to succeed too much because if they’re winning then you’re losing. If someone else gets more recognition and name identification then that sets them up better for the next election. I don’t pay attention to this, but I’ve heard comments, and I’m realizing that it’s a reality that you deal with. The politics continue and you think you have a hard end date with the election, but you’re just opening up another level.

Was there any go-to notable or remarkable resource you couldn’t have done this without? 

Everyone can make use of Marshall Ganz’s story of self technique. The most masterful usage of this technique is probably President Obama’s 2004 campaign speech or more recently Michelle Obama’s speech for Hillary Clinton about women where she was talking about being a mother and her daughters before she segued that into talking about voting for Hillary Clinton…The concept is that you start talking about yourself in a way that is personal, connecting that story somehow to a shared common experience with your audience. Once you establish a connection, you create a sense of urgency and make a call to action. That call might be casting a vote, making a donation, or attending some event. But whatever the ask, the general technique is important to master. I still haven’t mastered it, but I employ it when I can in my interactions with people. 

For mental sanity, I really like the campaignsick Tumblr account for comedic relief. You won’t think it’s funny unless you’ve been on a campaign.

What is your advice to someone thinking about running for office? 

1. Think about why you’re running because you should do it for the right reasons. There are many reasons to run - because you want to be famous, because you want a paycheck, you want to have a seat at the policy table, or everyone around you is telling you that you should. I would focus on what you want. Know why you’re getting into it. The idea of running for office is daunting, but once you’ve put your name out there you feel like it’s not such a big deal. It was a huge milestone for me to raise $10,000 because a professional fundraiser set that amount as a litmus test for viability and I never believed I could raise that much from within my personal network of friends and family. But when I actually did it, I called that person up to share my excitement. For my second City Council race, raising $10,000 was still daunting, but substantially easier. 

2. Elected office isn’t a job,  it’s a lifestyle. It’ll completely change your life for better or worse. You meet so many amazing people and you have opportunities to learn and to travel, but you’re also constantly scrutinized. For instance, I’ve had tweets of mine that are just frivolous tweets about nothing to do with city policy, published in the paper. I’ve had people project motivations onto my actions that aren’t true…The things you say carry more weight.

3. No matter what you do, win as yourself. Authenticity has value and will be an advantage in campaigns. Be open to good advice and know when to take good counsel. But don’t change the core of who you are because you think you can get more votes out of it. A victory gained through employing a tactic or taking a position you don’t believe in will be fleeting at best. In the long-run, it will just be a prison of your own making. Be yourself. Even if it means bringing a Captain America shield to your oath of office ceremony.