By Alan Ostergren
You should consider running for local office. No, really, you should. Later this year Iowans will elect representatives to school boards and city offices (county offices are elected in even-numbered years). These elections are nonpartisan and take little organizational effort to mount a campaign. Most of these elections are very low turnout, meaning that a person who has a decent reputation in a community and a willingness to engage with family and friends to get his or her message out, can produce a winning result.
But obviously the fact that you could win a race for school board or city council is not a reason to run. The reason to run is that these local offices are important. We have all witnessed the importance of good decision making at the local level as we mark a full year under the COVID-19 pandemic. Parental frustration at schools that refused to return to in-person instruction or that have imposed needless mask mandates should turn into a desire to run for school board and change things. Cities, too, have had to adapt to the pandemic. Did your city focus on the basics of delivering services or did it spend its time on the pandemic theater of mask mandates?
Local governments have an enormous fiscal impact. Your property tax bill is what pays for cities, counties, and schools (along with a variety of other local entities). Has your city or school hiked taxes for years with little tangible improvement in services? Over half of that bill is spent on education alone. Yet less than 20% of eligible voters participate in school board elections, compared with nearly 80% turnout in the 2020 general election. Iowans give their local schools over $1.9 billion but only one in five Iowans shows up to decide how that money will be spent. For most people, property tax payments (whether as part of your house payment or built into the rent you pay a landlord) is one of the largest expenses they pay every month.
A person with a streak of common sense and basic fiscal understanding can make a positive impact at the local level. You don’t need to be an expert in government to do this. Your expertise in life, whether running a business or balancing the family budget, translates into the work that a school board or city council performs. In fact, a person who isn’t “from the system” will probably do a better job in the long run. Historically, one of the major causes of school budget growth has been the fact that teacher unions have effectively organized to participate in school board elections. In an environment where these races have low turnout, the teacher union voting bloc can get its candidates elected. The result is a school board more focused on promoting the interests of the union than the interests of students.
It is not hard to run for local office. The Iowa Secretary of State publishes a guide for school and city candidates. The filing deadlines are not until late summer (it’s different in cities with primary elections-check with city hall for details). For many of these races you can easily spend less than the $1,000 limit before you need to establish a candidate committee. You don’t need a truck load of campaign signs. A social media presence and a network of friends talking about your candidacy might be all that it takes to win.
Complaining about local government is easy, but it is not effective. A well-placed candidate who steps forward can transform how a school or city runs. Talk to your family and friends and decide if you can be that person.
Alan Ostergren is President of Kirkwood Institute, a non-profit, strategic litigation law firm in West Des Moines, Iowa, as well as an attorney in private practice. As a prosecutor with over twenty years of experience, Ostergren served as Assistant Muscatine County Attorney from 1997 to 2011. Starting in 1999, he also worked as Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for three years, primarily handling federal drug, firearm, and immigration cases out of Muscatine County. Ostergren was elected to be Muscatine County Attorney and took office in January 2011. He served as County Attorney for nearly ten years before leaving office to found Kirkwood Institute.