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Kristie Holmes: What It’s Really Like To Run For Office Part 1

By Rachel L. West
Advocacy & Community Outreach Consultant

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by Kristie Holmes who is running for a congressional seat out in California. She is a social work professor who wanted to teach her students about the importance of social workers running for political office. Since officially tossing her hat into the ring Kristie has gotten a firsthand look at just how badly broken the election system is in this country.

Because of length I have opted to publish this interview in 2 parts. Part 2 will be published next Tuesday.

Note: This interview was conducted by email. I opted not to cut or overly edit Kristie responses.

Name: Kristie Holmes
Office You are running for: Congress, CD33 (California)
Political Party: Democrat
Website/blog: Official Website http://www.kristieholmes.com. You can donate at www.donatetokristie.com. The blog http://www.kristierunningforcongress.blogspot.com. Twitter account @DrKristie

The Political Social Worker: What led you to pursue elected office?

Kristie Holmes: It started out…The apathy of my students, my own lack of “real” knowledge about how the process worked.  We can encourage students to “get involved” as I have for the past 7 years, but I was finding that the longer this went on, the less I really knew about what it meant.  The idea of “what would you have to do if you were to try and run”, carried on… in the middle of it all- Henry Waxman decided to retire, opening the seat here after more than 40 years.  I wasn’t born when he went into office.  The more I found out about the process my social work red flags started going up with issues related to access for voters and candidates and the attitude towards money.  The constant reference to my being a “horse” started to set in. I saw commentary about this being the “most expensive seat in the country”.  NASW News (2 months ago) pushed how we need more SWs on the Hill.

Prevailing attitudes of “this is how it is because this is how it has always been” started smelling increasingly bad.  “It’s broken but it’s all we have”.  “You have to get used to big fundraising or you can’t play the game”.

Horse and game. “It’s all about “‘relationships’”. Financial “war chest”, “pay to play”, “tit for tat”, funding prior to campaign, corruption after election – what is the difference?  No one is really able to explain this clearly to me.  It’s a whole new vocabulary.  Yet we are expected to file forms with the FEC, assign a treasurer and jump into fundraising minutes after you assemble a team. The “game” is set up for people with ready to go funders with already established campaign accounts, registered with FEC.  And with this type of race – really a matter of weeks – anyone outside of the established political arena is WAY behind.  And then there are ENDORSEMENTS. Most of which go out long before “new” candidates can be vetted or present themselves to request endorsement.  Endorsements are generally attached to money.  They should lend credibility to candidates.  And they can.  However, much of it is fellow politicians supporting each other through established “relationships”.  I put this word in quotes because I have found that this means many different things in elections.

The Constitution says that a candidate is qualified if they are at least 25 years old and have lived in the US as a citizen for at least 7 years.  The “actual” rules have little to do with this requirement.

But now? Continued shock at my own ignorance and the need to let others know why we are stuck in this cycle of corrupted elections and distracted lawmakers (see the three recent arrests in CA of state senators (i.e. Yee), and another back East reported over the last couple of days…and who does or doesn’t report it…that is another issue altogether).

I see hope in that we have a Congressional Social Work Caucus.  Rep. Henry Waxman (current) has been in this seat for 40 years.   At one point he was the chair of the Caucus.   Barbara Lee is now the Chair.

PSW: On your blog you talk about being shocked at how expensive the process of running for office is. What else were you surprised to learn about the realities of running for office?

KH: How truly divisive the parties are.  From my perspective – after election, especially – you are the voice of your constituents.  You work for the people of the US, not a party.  But much of the dialogue and the campaign solicitations talk about “getting” or “retaining” control.  On the positive side, there are other candidates with the same feelings and experienced professionals in other sectors equally  flummoxed by the process and corruptive quality of the money in campaigns.  They want to see it changed as well, but feel powerless and fearful of the experienced politician hires (incredibly expensive and out of reach for the rest of us) that are solely to “destroy” competition through negative press, mailers and TV commercials.  It is a risk to candidate families, and also changes what they are willing to say in public (similar to whistleblower fears).  I know that a few candidates are running with huge debt loads from previous failed campaigns, which only increases the desperation to “win at any cost” which feeds into justification of tactics to win.  I also think that truly, many have no idea what will happen when they take special interest money- many talk a great talk- and then you’ve been bought by multiple interests in order to be competitive. (That’s my empathic social worker self-coming out – trying to understand what happens to people in this process).

Talking points, and “gotcha” questions.  I’m as guilty as the next voter, but listening to fellow candidates repeatedly at different events, I’ve realized how polished and “puppet” sounding everyone is – questions range on everything imagined – economy, health care, war, foreign policy, environment, corruption, education….on and on.  NO ONE is an expert in all of these things, but you’d better have a few bullet points down so you sound like you are.  Which makes much of the forum “meaningless”.  Most are attorneys, some in business, and others, but no one is an expert in all of these things.  And as I told the Santa Monica forum the other night – even with a doctorate in ANY topic, you are only an expert in a very narrow field.  However, that doesn’t mean that any and all of us would make “bad” representatives.  Much of it should be about sitting back and listening to the hundreds of others in the house bringing legislation forward that they maybe experts in, listening in – doing requisite research and then forming an opinion.  You don’t want us going in to the House thinking we are experts with these bullet points (often written by other “experts”), especially as “freshman”.

The point of having a House of Reps is to represent different views, reflective of the district you serve.  Knowing what they think.  But these “vote getting” forums seem to be mostly based on spouting party lines of acceptability.  Example: I have found listening to viewpoints on the ACA (Obamacare) repeatedly over the past 4 weeks bordering absurd.  Everyone answering questions based on three bullet points on a tens of thousands of page document that no one has actually read.

PSW: How does your social work skills and knowledge translate to running a political campaign?

KH: Having to be creative and innovative with very little to work with.  Forms and bureaucracy – those things I was prepared for!

(To be continued next week)

photo credit: SpeakerBoehner via photopin cc

Posted by Rachel L. West

In addition to being the founder of The Political Social Worker blog, I am a consultant. My consulting practice offers advocacy and community outreach solutions to nonprofits, social good organizations, and private practitioners. Additionally, I offer career coaching to macro social work students and professionals.

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