A Latina who launched her first campaign for a local elective office in Overland Park this past fall tells the inside story of what it’s like to put yourself out there in the public eye. For Journal columnist Amanda Vega-Mavec, Kansas Leadership Center ideas played a big role in helping her stay grounded during the stresses and strains of asking people for their votes.
I ran for office, and I’m here to tell you about it.
I’ll save you the suspense and tell you now that I didn’t win. I could also tell you that my leadership journey ended when I came up short 291 votes, but if there is anything the Kansas Leadership Center teaches, it’s the belief that leadership is an activity, not a position. Despite not having the title of City Council member, I am still a leader. An integral part of my personal philosophy on leadership is that I share with others my experiences in the hope that they can use them to inform their own leadership journey.
The Johnson County area is composed of many municipalities of different demographics, and my race was just one of many. My experience is just that, mine. There were factors that contributed to my own unique experience running for office. I’m a woman, a Latina, I was the “new kid on the block” and I had no previous experience with a campaign.
I’d be lying if I said I had never thought about running for local office before this experience. In high school I was profiled by the local paper, and there in print for eternity it says that I wanted to one day run for local office. My husband and I talked about it from time to time as it was no secret that I enjoyed being civically involved, serving on various boards and committees, and I always had plenty to say about the need for more diverse representation in Johnson County’s local governments.
But we would always conclude that our family wasn’t ready for a campaign with the required fundraising, door knocking and “putting yourself out there.” However, one day a close friend called to say my name was being tossed around as a potential candidate, and I was more excited than I should have been.
After a couple of weeks of discussing it with my husband, I found myself with a campaign manager, a plan and many coffees in my future. Although I consider myself more informed about politics than many, my only previous involvement with a campaign had been donating what my budget as an educator allowed and some phone banking for a friend who ran for local office in his city. The learning experience that followed was one that can only be described by a litany of adjectives: frustrating yet fulfilling, disappointing yet rewarding, surprising yet expected, and motivating despite losing.
Throughout the campaign I regularly looked to KLC competencies. They helped me stay grounded as I navigated questionnaires, forums and interactions with voters. I could make the argument that I used each competency equally, but here I will focus on the different elements of managing self – know your strengths, vulnerabilities and triggers; know the story others tell about you; choose among competing values; get used to uncertainty and conflict; experiment beyond your comfort zone; and take care of yourself.
Know Your Strengths, Vulnerabilities and Triggers,
I never doubted that I was qualified to run for local office. (OK, maybe I did a few times.) The only qualification listed at the election office for my political race was that I be a resident of the city where I was running. I live right on the border of my city and joke that if I threw a stone from my backyard it would land in the neighboring city, but I still met the requirement set forth by the election office.
I also hold a terminal degree, have extensive volunteer experience, and serve on several local boards and committees. I also had two other “qualifications” going for me – I am a Latina. My city has expressed a desire to develop leadership that reflects the true diversity of the community, and I could bring a perspective that is still all too often lacking. Many supporters expressed delight that I would be part of this much needed change.
A few of my strengths also served as my greatest vulnerability. I had moved to JoCo only within the last 10 years, and my education and experiences outside of JoCo mattered to some voters. I was reminded more often than I expected that I wasn’t from around here, that I was considered an outsider.
Despite JoCo’s desire and recent efforts to be welcoming and inclusive to all who move here, I still did not meet the qualifications as a worthy candidate for many. I had people comment on social media posts, tell me in person and send me emails that I needed more experience here in JoCo before they would support me or see me as a viable candidate.
As the campaign carried on, this also became one of my triggers. I found that anytime someone questioned my ability to be a good City Council member despite my impressive resume, I would fight frustration and the urge to get defensive. Once I was able to identify these moments as triggers, I was able to modify my approach by acknowledging what I had gained before moving to JoCo and how this was valuable experience that would positively impact my work as a council member.
Knowing the story that others tell about you is an integral part of running for office. I was encouraged to stay on top of this by my campaign manager and several others. Thanks to social media it was fairly easy to keep up with some of what was said about me. I also had supporters and allies who were willing to share with me how I was being perceived by others.
What people had to say was not always easy to hear. While I never heard any negative comments regarding my ethnicity, I did hear negative comments about my gender. Other stories told about me largely dealt with my stance on certain issues, my perceived lack of experience in JoCo and my being the new kid on the block in terms of local politics. While there were times I was reactive, there were also times I was able to be proactive. For example, I knew that my current position on one particular issue would conflict with past actions. Knowing the story that might be told based on various interpretations of the previous situation, I was able to be upfront and honest about the evolution of my position.
Even before I filed for office, I was already having to choose among competing values. The choice to run for office as a parent who works full time was a choice between already limited family time and the opportunity to serve my community in a new and impactful way. I knew from the beginning that it would be impossible for me to please everybody, but as I knocked on doors and listened to residents talk about what affects them on a daily basis, I found myself pondering future votes as a council member, how I would make tough decisions and help those whom I was bound to disagree with understand why I voted as I did.
I went into my campaign with rose-colored glasses, thinking that I would always be able to vote according to the values I boasted about on walk cards and in social media posts. But as I researched topics and listened to residents, it became obvious that decision-making as a council member is not always easy or black and white. There were some issues I would not budge on, but others where I knew making the perfect decision would be impossible.
I got used to uncertainty and conflict quickly and found it in places I was least expecting it. Every single time I left the house to knock on doors, I was filled with uncertainty. Would people be receptive to my message? Would anyone slam the door on my face today? Would anyone question my qualifications?
Would Anyone Even Answer the Door?
There was also uncertainty in maintaining a public persona via events and social media. Sure, I am active on social media, but this was different. People I didn’t know would see me and my family and be able to comment. I did receive several hateful and grossly inappropriate messages via social media. From conversations with other candidates, it appeared they did not receive these types of messages.
As to be expected, there was conflict among the various factions involved in the political landscape. In a political climate filled with divisiveness, even within political parties, it is all too easy to shut out voices before a word is spoken. The temptation to do this throughout the campaign was real, but I told myself I needed to listen and research the people, causes and groups I was convinced I would disagree with. I knew this was the right thing to do. In the end I usually still disagreed with those I suspected I would, but some not as much as I expected. I also found that I wasn’t sure about some that I thought I would support unconditionally.
The entire campaign was an opportunity to experiment beyond my comfort zone. I’ve run numerous half-marathons and a handful of marathons. I met my husband, fell in love, got married and had a baby all in the time it took me to earn my doctorate. I can do hard things, and running for local office was no exception.
While I had experience with fundraising and had phone-banked for a friend, I had never done these things for myself. It’s one thing to ask for money and votes for someone or something else, but to ask family, friends and complete strangers to support you is a different endeavor. I wish I could say it got easier as the campaign went on, but it didn’t. I got used to it, but it did not get easier.
Someone I consider a friend and mentor told me that running for office is a humbling experience, and it is. I was humbled and grateful for the support I received. It helped me to keep going despite my overwhelming feelings of discomfort at times.
I also experienced discomfort directly related to running for office as a Latina. Had I been elected, I would have helped to double the number of women on the City Council, and I would have been the first woman of color elected. Despite the growing diversity of JoCo, the candidates running for office are still overwhelmingly white and mostly men. I felt out of place. That is the only way to say it. While I found friendship and support among fellow candidates, I felt most at ease with the other Latinas running for office across Kansas.
When I was deciding whether or not to run for office, two people, independently of each other, told me to start seeing a therapist if I was going to do this. One was essentially a stranger at that point (but now a friend); the other is someone close to me who had witnessed the emotional and physical toll the pandemic had taken on me up to that point and knew that taking on a campaign would further test my resiliency.
So I started seeing a therapist. The greatest outcome has been self-awareness that allows me to be an authentic version of myself. This was how I was able to avoid burnout and able to recover from the outcome of the election, staying focused on the positive and the many ways in which I still won.
Amanda Vega-Mavec, who has a doctorate in education, ran for the Ward 3 position on the Overland Park City Council last fall. She is the director of the El Centro Academy for Children, a Spanish/English dual-language preschool in Kansas City, Kansas. Originally from San Antonio, she has also lived in Austin, Texas and Boston. When not working, she can usually be found reading a book, gardening or watching superhero movies and musicals with her husband and 8-year-old daughter.
A version of this article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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