There are many good ways to get into politics, but most are not easy and take plenty of time and effort. Even more, this industry is often about who you know and not necessarily what you know. And, once you do figure out how to get into politics, you will likely find that it won't immediately pay enough money for it to be a career and will instead be a labor of love or a civic duty, especially at the local level. Running for Congress, where the salary is in the six figures, is a different story.
Lower-paying, entry-level jobs are more typical, as few people start their political careers at the federal level—President Donald Trump being a rare exception. So, beginning with the assumption that you're considering a run for the town council or perhaps weighing whether to launch a campaign for elected office in your community, what do you need to know first? Here are some helpful tips for getting into politics.
1. Volunteer for a Political Campaign
Every political campaign—whether it be for your local school board, a state legislature, or Congress—needs hard workers, people serving as the boots on the ground. If you want to get an idea of how politics really work, walk into any campaign headquarters and offer to help out. You'll likely be asked to do what appears to be menial work at first, such as helping to register new voters or making phone calls on behalf of a candidate. You might be handed a clipboard and a list of registered voters and told to go canvass the neighborhood. If you do the job well, you'll be given more responsibilities and a more visible role in the campaign, eventually working your way up to positions that could be important for your future career.
2. Join the Party
Getting into politics is, in a lot of ways, about your connections. An easy way to get to know important people is to join or run for a seat on your local party committee. This can be Republicans, Democrats, or a third party—you just need to establish yourself as a party leader. In many states, these are elected positions, so you'll need to get your name on the local ballot, which is a good learning process in and of itself. Precinct and ward leaders are the rank-and-file of any political party and are among the most important players in political processes. Their responsibilities include turning out the vote for the party's preferred candidates in primaries and general elections and screening potential candidates for local offices.
3. Contribute Money to Political Candidates
It's no secret in politics that money buys access. In an ideal world, that wouldn't be the case, but it is, and donors often have the ear of their favorite candidate as a result. The more money they give, the more access they get, and the more access they get, the more influence they might have over policy. So, what can you do? Contribute to a political candidate of your choice in the community. Even if you give just $20, they might notice and acknowledge your help—and that's a good start. You can also start your own political action committee or super PAC to support candidates of your choice without necessarily having to donate your money.
4. Pay Attention to Political News
Before you get into politics, you ought to know what you're talking about and be able to hold an intelligent and thoughtful conversation about the issues. Read your local newspaper. Then read your state newspapers. Then read national publications: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and more. Whatever you can get access to, read it; and with so many magazines and papers being published online now, accessibility has never been easier. Find good local bloggers to stay current on the issues close to home and if there's a particular problem in your town, think about solutions yourself and form your own opinions.
5. Start Local and Work Your Way Up
Get involved in your community by going to municipal meetings and networking with activists. Learn the issues and build coalitions dedicated to changing and improving your town. A good place to start is attending your weekly or monthly school board meetings because public education and school funding are important issues in every community in the United States. Join the conversation and see what jobs are available—you might have to accept a position that isn't quite what you were hoping for at first, but remember that every step you take is an investment in your long-term career.
6. Run for an Elected Office
Start small by running for a seat on your local school board or town council. As one-time U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local." Most politicians who go on to serve as governors, congressmen, or president started their political careers at the local level. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, started out as a freeholder, a county-level elected office. The same goes for Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Before running, you'll want to pick a team of advisers to stick by you throughout the process, and you should also prepare yourself and your family for the intense scrutiny you'll all be under. The media, other candidates, and campaign workers who perform "opposition research" on you will be interested in every aspect of your life, so be sure to have a plan in place for addressing or defending any potential areas of controversy.