Councilmember Robert White, jr.
Councilmember Robert White, Jr. is a native of Washington, D.C. where he serves on the city council. During his time as an attorney for Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton he was inspired to run for office after seeing his and other families being left behind during the drastic resurgence of the District. Running wasn’t easy. In fact, his win didn’t come until his second appearance on the ballot up against an incumbent. Check out our interview below for his advice, tips, and strategies!
What, if any, were your greatest obstacles during your campaigns?
I come from a low-income family and most of the people in my social circle were either low-income as well or were young professionals. We were all broke because we were either paying student debts, buying homes, getting married, having babies, and we just didn’t have spare money.
You can’t mount a campaign without money to run the campaign. So figuring out where I would raise a significant amount of money was by far the biggest obstacle. The second time I ran it was the same problem. I ran against an incumbent and people who were most likely to donate to campaigns knew they weren’t allowed to donate to my campaign. So the starting point was just as difficult the second time even though I had done it before.
When it comes to the resources and mindset people should have regarding campaign finances, Councilmember White recommends a few things:
- Very quickly wrap your head around how uncomfortable it is.
- Make a list of every single person you know, get their numbers, assess how much you think they can donate, and start calling.
- Don't overthink it.
Since his start in office, Councilmember White has co-introduced the Fair Elections Act of 2017 (currently being considered), which in part, would require the D.C. Board of Elections to "adjust the number and amount of qualifying small-dollar contributions a candidate must receive to qualify as a participating candidate."
what happened differently between your first and second run that led to your ultimate win?
The real difference was in how I approached the campaign. In the first campaign I thought it was important for someone seeking a job to essentially show that I had what it takes to fulfill that job, so I was trying to show that I had the policy chops and I spent a lot of time developing a very strong policy platform. What I realized is that people don’t get into the weeds…they want to know that you can handle the job. In a natural shyness, I’m not tremendously comfortable talking about myself, but my wife advised me during the second campaign that I should talk more about who I am and why I’m running.
What do you wish you would have known before or during your campaign that could have aided your run for office?
Knowing how difficult it is to run a campaign, how difficult it is to win a campaign, and how dramatically far away from those things I was before my first campaign would have been helpful information. Had I known, I wouldn’t have done it. It would have stopped me because I was so ill-prepared to win a campaign both times because I knew I didn't have that foundational wealth.
The first time I ran I didn't know the players in the city...I didn’t have a real appreciation for how many important people there were in the city that I needed to meet and convince I was a strong candidate.
now that you are in office, how would you describe the environment? What, if any, challenges are you facing?
There are so many things required to run the city that are outside of your priorities which have to get done and consume so much of your time. Those things include legislation, city finances, and just touching people’s lives because it’s important for people to see you and feel like you are accessible; that you care enough to show up to their community meetings.
All of these things compete for time because I'm still trying to find time to be a father and a husband, and get some sleep. It's an uphill battle but it’s kind of like a campaign where day to day, moment to moment, you don’t see the progress, but if you keep pushing ahead, you’ll eventually look back and realize that you’ve come a long distance.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about taking the next step to run for office?
Have real and honest discernment about what it takes [to run] and whether you’re willing and able to give what it takes. That means you have to assess both what is required of you, which is all of your time and energy doing things day in and day out that are very uncomfortable for the average person, and you have to make an honest assessment about what it requires of your significant other or spouse because it requires a lot of them too.
In the scheme of things, while running for office and winning political office is a goal a lot of people have, I think you have to make sure your priorities are in order. If you value your relationship, and hopefully people do, and you don’t think your relationship can handle this, then you shouldn’t do it because it's not worth it. You don’t want to realize that down the road, you want to realize that before you walk through the door.