So you want to run for public office. Pound a few campaign signs into the ground, shake some hands, maybe get quoted in the paper a time or two. Sounds good, sir or madam. How hard can it be?

My only question, having never thrown a hat into the political ring myself, is: Why would anybody want to run for public office?

“My wife thinks I’m nuts,” says Tim Lajoie of Lewiston who is running for City Council.

Fact is, his wife has a point.

I was at a public gathering last week that aimed to introduce the year’s local candidates to the public. It was a perfectly civil affair with no mud slung, but it was also a fine illustration of the kind of dog-and-pony gauntlet a candidate must endure to be properly vetted by the voters.

The candidates are herded to the front of the room and made to sit facing their narrow-eyed public. Cameras flash from all corners of the room. The TV guys keep their video rolling, with lenses gaping like giant mouths ready to swallow every tasty slip-up or hilarious faux pas.

Reporters watch, vulture-like, with pens hovering over their notebooks. Stammer a second too long over a key question and it will be captured forever for all to see. Utter an inadvertent slight against another candidate and the whole city will know about it come morning.

In the crucible of the political news event, molehills are transformed into mountains. The most subtle nose-pick or speck of food in the beard can send you straight to the infamy of YouTube. One simple misstatement could spell utter ruin. Your political career could be in shambles that quickly and your public reputation tarnished forever.

And that’s at a well-organized and professionally run public meeting. Worse is the public scrutiny of your private life; the silent interviews conducted after dark, when you’re not looking. The smear campaigns, the accusations, being forced to run your campaign from a defensive posture.

You may be running for the position of dog catcher, my friend, but if some other schmo wants it a little more, he or she won’t hesitate to root through your garbage, both literally and figuratively. All they need is one nugget, one scandal from your less-than-pristine past to feed to the media.

It must start to feel like people WANT you to screw up — like maybe Don Henley was right about how much we all just love dirty laundry, as long as it isn’t our own. So why subject yourself to it?

“Purely dumb faith,” says Lewiston School Committee candidate Megan Parks, “that if I don’t play dirty, no one else will, either.”

When you run for office, you’re a carnival attraction. Everywhere you go, people are looking at you, studying you, waiting for that public face to erode a bit so they can see what lies beneath. You have to be sweet, but not too sweet: Who wants a terminally happy dimwit handling city business?

You have to be serious, but not too serious: Geesh, Candidate X seems like a smart fellow and all, but he doesn’t seem like he’d be much fun to drink with.

You have to be able to smile on cue, frown on cue, and give what sounds like answers when you really have no answers to give. If the old lady at the end of Elm Street wants to talk about potholes on her road, you better be willing and able to talk about potholes. If she wants your thoughts on Common Core, you better not waffle. Just saying what’s on your mind is no longer a choice. Why not give it all up, tear up those campaign signs and go have a beer? Say whatever you want to say, scratch yourself and burp as loudly as you can.

That’s how I’d play it, anyway. Fortunately, people run for these important positions so I don’t have to — so YOU don’t have to. They’re willing to put in all that work just so you and I can later blame them for all of our woes. Little Jimmy flunking gym again? Blame those damn politicians we put in office.

It’s really kind of a sweet gig. For us, that is, not for them.

“Simple answer for me is, ‘I want to win!'” says Dawn Hartill, running for a position on the School Committee. “I care very deeply about education and the students of Lewiston. By serving on the School Committee, I can give back to the community and have a voice in the decision-making process for the Lewiston School Department. It is as simple as that for me. But I will be honest: It is A LOT of work.”

People with political ambition seem to inherently understand that it’s an ugly business that will gobble up two-thirds of your life over a period of months, if not years. They dive in headfirst, anyway, knowing their eyes may be gouged, their hair will be pulled, and they could come out the other side smelling like poo with nothing to show for it.

It’s easy to see why Tim Lajoie’s wife thinks he’s a little bit crazy for going through it. Just remember that somebody has to be out there scraping and clawing their way into office or nothing would get done around here.

“When you are part of a community, you have a responsibility to be a contributor,” says Lajoie. “At the end of the day you get in the ring and fight because, in my opinion, it is preferable to doing nothing at all.

“We all have a responsibility to leave the world a better place than we found it,” Lajoie says. “I want to be able to say I tried to make a difference … and that’s why I am running.”

It’s a beautiful sentiment and I get it, I really do. There is no honor higher than trying to do right by your fellow man. I admire these people. I respect them.

Still think they’re a little bit nuts, though.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. He wants to be a carnival attraction without having to run for office. Email him at [email protected]


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