Lessons from a Recovering Political CandidateAndre M. Wang January/February 2023
Running for public office is undisputedly the hardest, most humbling, and most exhilarating exercise of American civics. In my quest to become an Oregon state legislator, I had the privilege of enduring both the majesty and seamy underbelly of electoral politics. As a candidate of solid faith and spiritual conviction, my approach to being a candidate for office was unwavering and yet in many ways unconventional.
My Political DNA
My father is the greatest American I’ve ever known. He fled China and Mao’s totalitarian regime in the early 1960s to come to the United States. After graduating from Andrews University with a degree in mathematics, he settled in the strange, foreign city of Portland, Oregon, where he met my mother (herself an immigrant from the Philippines), and together they built their American dream.
After becoming an American citizen and mastering the English language, my father ran for public office: county auditor. He challenged an incumbent on the premise that the taxpayer dollar was sacrosanct, and every level of government should be transparent and accountable to its constituents. He lost that race, but it didn’t stop his civic engagement—and that’s when he got me involved. My earliest political memory was, as a toddler, stuffing and licking envelopes for Gerald Ford in 1976.
The more I participated in the civic process, the more I became fascinated with electoral politics—the strategizing, meeting voters, and persuading them on policy. With every campaign season and every election night that I stayed up watching results come in, the more I wanted to be a gladiator in the coliseum of politics.
As a young adult I asked my father what compelled him to run for office. He replied, “This is America, the greatest country on earth, where anyone can put their name on the ballot, run, and serve their community.”
“The Perfect Candidate”
Opportunity presented itself in the fall of 2009 when a caucus leader in the Oregon legislature began to court me to become a candidate for state representative in the November 2010 election. My legislative district, he asserted, had been identified in early polling data as competitive, and with the right candidate, it would be a “targeted race” for fundraising and resources. He attempted to close the deal by inflating my ego. “You’re not the right candidate,” he wooed, “you’re the perfect candidate.” Fortunately, I was savvy enough not to believe him.
Running for Office Cannot Be a Selfish Enterprise
My father instilled in me the belief that running for political office and, hopefully, being elected and serving your constituents is a sacred calling. While I had always been politically ambitious, I resolved that when the time came, I would be sure to do it for the right reasons.
My reply to the state legislative leader’s invitation was to ask for time to reflect, seek counsel, and pray. While he thought a few days or a week at most would be enough, I asked for 60 days. He reluctantly agreed.
That night I called five men from different facets of my life. Each one I respected personally, professionally, morally, and spiritually. I informed them that the time had come and asked them to pray for me as I wrestled with the decision of whether to become a political candidate.
A week later one of them assured me that he was taking his task seriously, fervently praying that I run and win. Aghast, I realized I had conveyed the wrong message and needed to recalibrate the prayer assignment. I wanted them to pray that, if I did run, it would be for the right reasons—not to glorify myself but to honestly represent the interests of my community and to respect the voters, especially my detractors. When a campaign becomes all about the candidate and not the community, the candidate may eventually win the election, but the community ultimately loses. I was adamant this would never happen under my candidacy.
I will be forever grateful for the invaluable wisdom, support, and candor I received from my prayer team. At the end of the 60 days they subjected me to a lengthy cross-examination on the merits and demerits of running a political campaign, the impact it would have on my family in time and treasure, and whether I would be able to handle defeat . . . or victory. After a season of prayer, the team voted unanimously that I declare my candidacy for Oregon state representative in my district.
First, Do Opposition Research on Yourself
Part of determining anyone’s fitness for running for office is to do a complete and honest examination of the candidate’s background—personally, professionally, academically, and socially.
One of my first meetings as a candidate was with the campaign consultants assigned to me by the legislative caucus to excavate any proverbial skeletons in my closet that could be potentially detrimental to my campaign. Their checklist of questions was exhaustive: Have you ever cheated on a test? Have you ever plagiarized a paper? Do you have a criminal history? judgments? divorces? mistresses? Or worse, ex-mistresses?
After I responded no to almost all their questions, they replied, “Thank you. We know you are telling the truth because we already conducted your background check.”
Then they slid a thick binder across the table to me; it was bursting with “opposition research” on my opponent. Stunned, I asked, “Does this mean there’s a binder like this on me?” Their reply was incredulous: “Of course!”
It was a sobering realization that guerilla tactics in the politics of personal destruction were very real, even for a local legislative race.
Civility in Politics Is Still Possible
While the contest in my district was identified as “competitive,” it was a daunting challenge. My opponent was a first-term incumbent who was adored in the community. A firefighter, former police officer, and U.S. Army veteran (he was in the invasion of Grenada), he quite literally is an all-American hero. One observer analogized my campaign to “running against Santa Claus in the district of the North Pole.”
In a gesture that goes against all rules of conventional political strategy, I contacted my opponent to introduce myself. I wanted to see him as a person, not an adversary. Political campaigns are ruthless endeavors, and connecting with him on a personal level, I reasoned, would change the combative proclivity of campaign politics, at least in our race.
Our meeting was amicable, if not downright friendly. We shared about our families, what led us into politics, and our visions for the community. As moderates in our respective parties, we held common legislative goals and aspirations. Yet the greatest outcome of our initial meeting was the pledge we made to each other and, by extension, to our district: that our campaigns would be civil, not personal, and grounded on the issues. I told him with brutal honesty—with a smile on my face—that his legislative record gave me plenty to run on. “That’s totally fair,” he replied. “I have to defend my votes.”
After all, that’s what elections are all about.
Negative Campaigning Is the Norm
Because It Works
I held a deep resolve that I would rather lose an election than malign an opponent’s character, reputation, or judgment for political gain. It not only inflicts heartache and pain on an opponent’s family, but also does a disservice to the community. By keeping the process civil, we honored the voters and the process.
Don’t be mistaken. I still campaigned hard, shamelessly promoting myself to any voter who would shake my hand, while waging a full offensive on my opponent’s legislative record. Battalions of volunteers canvassed neighborhoods on my behalf. Supporters put my campaign signs in front of their homes and businesses. I was even ruthless enough to place signs throughout my opponent’s neighborhood and along the route he took to his workplace.
As Election Day crept closer, polls confirmed that our race was indeed competitive and that I was closing the gap. Right on cue, my campaign handlers proposed a series of negative mailers against my opponent—appropriately called “hit pieces”—designed for such a time as this.
While society decries the prevalence of negativity in politics, there is no question it works. Nothing brings an opponent’s numbers down more than negative advertising. The strategy has stood the test of time, and now was the time, in my campaign, to unleash it.
The mailers my team created were clever, creative, and, without a doubt, would have been effective. But they were also personal, callous, and unrelated to my opponent’s performance as an elected official. In this pivotal moment of the campaign, I vetoed the strategy and resolved to win on merits alone. Multiple campaign observers said, “You’re going to lose this election.” That was fine with me. At least it would be with a clear conscience.
I gave the opposition research binder to my campaign manager and told him to put it away. The material within was of no use to us.
People Bet on Winning Racehorses
When I decided not to go negative against my opponent, the resources and support provided by the legislative caucus evaporated. For the final stretch of my campaign I was effectively abandoned by the group that recruited me to run in the first place. It was hard not to take it personally. But then I realized that it wasn’t personal. People bet on winners, and political contests are no different. Electoral politics is a business, and resources need to be allocated to races that can be won.
Candidates are like jockeys, and our campaigns are like racehorses. I was a superb jockey. I did everything to keep the momentum of my racehorse campaign going. But when the momentum fizzled, political groups stopped betting on my race.
I ultimately lost my race by 8 percentage points. My father, who inspired my passion for politics, had died in 2006. Election Day fell on what would have been his seventy-first birthday. I’m convinced he would have been proud of the way his son lost his first election.
Ambition Is a Good Thing
There is an understandable perception that political ambition is a narcissistic, egomaniacal quest for glory and affirmation. Of all the criticisms directed against my choice to become a political candidate, this was the most frequent—particularly from those of my own faith.
Ambition, frankly, gets a bad rap. In every aspect of human existence, it is ambition that motivates us and keeps us engaged. It is ambition that makes the difference between passion and complacency.
Run with Perseverance
During the final stretch of the campaign, I was making a final appearance at what are colloquially known in politics as a “rubber-chicken dinner”—an event during which candidates give their stump speeches and make a final pitch for votes. In my remarks I confessed to the audience that I was exhausted after a full day of events, I missed my family, and wanted to go home.
After I got home, as I emptied the pockets of my suit jacket I found a folded note that had been slipped into one of the pockets. Scribbled on it was Hebrews 10:36: “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” (NIV).* This note was so inspirational to me in those final days of the campaign that I keep it in my wallet to this day.
All of us run races, whether personal, professional, or even political. Whatever the contest, “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1, 2, NIV).
After I lost my race, it was eerily quiet. Everyone celebrates the victor. But for the losing candidate, who has been consumed with campaigning for months, it is suddenly over. So I started a tradition of calling losing candidates in the state the day after every Election Day to thank them for running and for having the courage to put their name on the ballot. Many candidates have said mine are the only post-election accolades they get.
My former opponent and I continue to be friends, and we occasionally appear together at schools to discuss civility in politics. When asked if either of us would run for office again, our responses are resolute and identical: “No way. Not in today’s polarized environment.”
In contrast, my wife believes my name will appear on a ballot again someday. She constantly reminds me, “God doesn’t put a fire in our hearts for it to be ignored.” That’s brilliant political strategy right there.
*Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Article Author: Andre M. Wang
Andre M. Wang serves as general counsel and director of public affairs and religious liberty for the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He continues to post musings on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.