A city council is a group of elected officials who serve as a city’s legislative body. It’s a popular goal for first-time political candidates. But if you want to run for city council, it’s highly unlikely that you will run unopposed.

For example, in 2021, over 300 candidates are running for New York City Council throughout the five boroughs. That is a lot of people running for just 51 elected positions.

Council members—also known as a city council or board of aldermen—are tasked with representing the interests of their constituents. The title for city council members vary. They may be called councilmember, alderman, selectman, trustee, freeholder or commissioner. In Chicago, for example, the city government consists of 50 aldermen elected from 50 wards.

As local legislators, council members represent the citizens who elected them. Depending on the city charter and state laws, a council’s duties may include:

  • Approving city budgets
  • Proposing new public and business laws and ordinances
  • Passing laws and ordinances
  • Ratifying and update laws and ordinances
  • Making land use decisions and enter into municipal contracts
  • Updating the city charter
  • Responding to constituent needs
  • Regulating health and safety issues
  • Investigating city agencies, when necessary
  • Serving as a check against the mayor

A board’s most important responsibility is approving the city budget. Most members of a city council, including the mayor, are directly elected by voters in a city, district or parish. To run a successful campaign, there are things you need to know about eligibility, the issues, fundraising and establishing an effective campaign team.

Let’s start with the basics.

Why do you want to run for city council?

Before you start to run for office, you should have clear goals in mind. What are some of the challenges facing the residents in your town or city? What policies would you enact to help them deal with those issues? What makes you a better choice than your political opponents?

Your issues will help form the story about you and your campaign. It should be relevant and touch voters at an emotional level.

The National League of Cities releases an annual State of the Cities report. In it, the NLC examined 100 State of the City speeches from large and small cities across the United States.

According to the report, these are the top issues that matter to cities:

  1. Economic Development
  2. Public Safety
  3. Budgets
  4. Infrastructure
  5. Education
  6. Housing
  7. Energy/Environment
  8. Demographics, Diversity, and Inclusiveness
  9. Technology and Data
  10. Health Care

There is a good chance that one or more of these issues can become the basis of your candidacy. Learn the local issues and how they effect taxpayers and residents. Find out what solutions are being proposed and think about your stand on those positions. Many candidates for city council use how and where local money is spent as good reasons for running.

why do you want to run for city council?

Your objectives will affect the messaging and theme of your campaign. You will need to understand both the issues, your districts, and your voters to develop a campaign platform. Analyze the attitude of the locals towards current elected officials.

Analyze the demographics of the area, including the number of voters, age ranges, household income and more. What are the dominant constituent groups? What are their needs and demands?

Research previous campaigns. How did those candidates conduct their campaigns? What issues did they run on? What success have they achieved?

With this information, you can start to design a robust election strategy.

Check your eligibility to be on the ballot

Your local government will not only determine the eligibility requirements, but also the duties and responsibilities of city council. Eligibility for a city council position varies on the municipality. Before you begin your campaign, you should be familiar with the requirements to serve. You must adhere to the requirements of a candidate and abide by state and local campaign laws and regulations.

Councilmembers typically serve four-year terms, though two-year terms are common in smaller municipalities. The term length and number of terms that a member can serve can vary. In Los Angeles, city council members are elected to four-year terms, for a maximum of three terms.  In Dallas, the term for the council members is 2 years and they may serve up to 4 terms.

“When I grew up, and I think about City Council, I look at the men and women then – these were people who just wanted to be a part of the community and give something back. They weren’t necessarily trying to use it as a steppingstone to something else. I looked up to those people.” — Brad Wenstrup

Below are some of the common requirements for city council candidates:

Age requirements

Generally, to be elected to the city council in a large US city, a person needs to be at least 18 years of age. This includes even large cities like New York City.

Residency requirements

Most cities require that council candidates be registered to vote in the district they are running in. To ensure that they have ties to the community you are going to run in, the candidate must also live in that district or parish.

Conflicts of interest

Many cities will also restrict your eligibility to run f you do regular business with the city. For example, if you are a business person who commonly goes in front of the city council in order to petition for building permits or to enter into city contracts, you may not be able to run for city council.

Where to get help on starting your campaign

Your county elections board or city clerk can provide the requirements and rules for your election before you run.

As with anything else government related, filling out the right paperwork is critical to the process. You will need all the relevant registration forms and documentation. Often you must register as a candidate in person. You must provide details such as your name, age, education experience, residence, and your financial interests.

You will have deadlines for submitting the documents. Some documents may have filing fees.

Know your deadlines. Don’t miss them.

Can you keep your existing elected position?

Some cities require the candidates to resign from their existing elected position if they plan to serve in the city council. This is called “resign to law”. Five states currently have resign-to-run laws—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, and Texas. If you fall under this law, you will need to leave your current job before you can run for another office.

A few years ago, the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved bowls … saying that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality. But how do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality?— Stephen Hawking

how much money will you need to run

How much money will you need raise for your city council race?

Election costs vary from location to location and from position to position. A village city council candidate may hardly need to raise money at all and do little more than door-to-door canvassing.

However, a large city campaign will require considerably more resources and networks to establish itself.

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  • Before you plan for fundraising, you should calculate the amount needed for your election. Election costs are higher than ever before. The amount varies based on the size of the city and competitiveness of the seat. The state board elections have financial campaign disclosures, but it’s also wise to check the FEC records for estimations if you live in a large city.
  • Many factors can affect the costs of a campaign. For example, if you are running against an entrenched incumbent, then you will likely need a bigger budget. Research the amount raised and spent from other city council candidates from the last few campaigns.

After you evaluate the past elections, you will identify the spending trends that will help you develop a practical budget for your own campaign.

Early donors who believe in your cause will be some of your most important backers. Online fundraising is one of the most effective ways to find money when starting out. You should have a city council campaign website as early as you can to accept donations from online donors.

To start fundraising, you won’t need much. Once you have a bank account and website, you’ll need a payment processor for your online transactions. A good online donation page contains the logo and colors of your campaign. A short introductory candidate video is also a good addition.

Increase your local popularity

Good messaging bonds you with voters. But to really build a following, don’t underestimate the power of raw popularity.

Many voters will vote for a popular individual for any political seat. We often see this in governor elections, where celebrities with no political experience sweep into office.

So, how do you increase your popularity?

It can be tough, especially if you are not extremely outgoing.

  • Familiarize yourself with what is happening locally through community events, charity events and more.
  • Engage yourself in development initiatives and become a regular visitor at council meetings. It is there that you can display leadership in the issues that are important to you. Others who attend those functions will become more acquainted with you and identify you as a potential leader.
  • Try to meet with community influencers and other essential people outside of scheduled government meetings.
  • If you get the support of elected officials and community leaders, that will eventually give you the connections and endorsements needed to boost your candidacy.

Make sure you start your outreach process before you declare your intention to run for any political seat. Once it’s known that you are vying for an elected position, many will treat you differently.

Later, once you get your campaign off the ground, you can erect billboards, door signs and brochures to make yourself more visible to the public. Door to door canvassing across different neighborhoods will also enable you to establish a deeper connection with the voters and get better support. Online campaigning will help you reach new voters and keep in contact with existing supporters.

“I enjoyed the administrative work because it involved working with Congress, city council, and the mayor. I had never been a politician so it was fun – learning political maneuvering.” – Harold H. Greene

Find your endorsements

Getting endorsed by politicians, political parties and other authorities can help establish trust with a good segment of the electorate. Organizations don’t seek out candidates to endorse, so you should be proactive when looking for endorsements. This is especially important for first-timer candidates.

Most organizations require candidates to follow a certain process to secure their endorsement. Typically, you will need to fill a questionnaire and outline your policies that will bring that will benefit the organization or their objectives. And if you need endorsements from individuals, then a letter with a similar outline will be beneficial.

Gather endorsements from supporters and organizations

Local, famous citizens can endorse you through letters in local newspapers. These can be extremely helpful. Newspaper endorsements from editorial boards can also help influence voters.

It helps to get endorsements from politicians, local individuals, political parties, influential locals, local unions, community unions, and community leaders. These are essential to your campaign as they raise your profile while making you more visible to the voting public.

Good endorsements can also boost your fundraising and volunteer organizational abilities.

Expand your social network

If you are a politician, then you need to be active in social media. If you are not talking about yourself and steering the conversation online, then someone else will be speaking for you.

And that will probably be your opponent.

Learn how social media works yourself. Eventually, your campaign team will help put together a social media strategy. Work on promoting good messaging and content. While you may do most of this yourself before you announce your candidacy, eventually you may want to have a social media manager handle this aspect of the campaign.

Attend events and government meetings

As an aspiring politician, it is crucial to participate in events and government meetings. They offer a platform to air your views on local issues and get recognized as a leader with genuine concerns for the people.

As noted above, being present in public meetings you will provide opportunities for meeting local representatives and developing a network that will be vital before and after your campaign.

Building contacts now will be essential to your political career.

Meet community members

Every day, you should have a goal of meeting at least one influential people in the community. These are individuals who understand the local community and its issues. They can help with your messaging and especially in convincing voters in their districts.

Relationships are the ingredients to success in almost every industry and profession. A larger network means a higher potential for success. Therefore, you should dedicate time for networking activity.

Create a campaign committee

Before you run, you will need to establish a campaign committee, designate a campaign treasurer, and have a campaign bank account.

These requirements are typical for every political campaign. A treasurer must be appointed before the making of expenditures or accepting of any funds towards the campaign. A candidate can act as their own committee treasurer though this is not recommended.

The treasurer is responsible for:

  • Signing and filing of committee reports and statements
  • Budgeting for expenditures
  • Ensuring the campaign contributions fall within legal limits
  • Authorization of expenditures

This position is sensitive and comes with significant responsibilities, and so you must have a trusted individual for the job. The treasurer should develop a campaign budget that includes sources of money and expenditures for the entire campaign period.

Other important members of your campaign team are:

  • Chairperson
  • Communications director
  • Campaign manager

Committee members should be linked of the campaign bank account to track the campaign expenses. Therefore, the committee must be present before any withdrawals are made from the account.

Most cities require you to establish a committee before you declare your candidacy. Once established, your team will also help in day to day running of the campaign.

File your documents

Many cities and  towns require local candidates to get a certain number of signatures for an election petition for them to qualify to run for the seat. So, you will need to collect signatures if you want to be on the ballot for a city council seat.

The exact number of signatures will vary based on the size of the town or city and the number of residents. These forms are available at your local clerk’s office and specifies the number of signatures needed and the deadline of collection. If you are running for city council in a large city, then you may need a team of canvassers and volunteers who will help you to get the signatures.

Once your petition has collected the required number of signatures, the next task is the candidate’s affidavit and fulfilling any other election requirements.

If all goes well, you will be on the ballot!

And that’s just the start of your election season. As you ramp up your campaign, building an excited base is important. You will need those people to show up on Election Day.

“If the City Council wants to hold the police accountable, it has the subpoena power and oversight responsibility to do so. They don’t have the courage to do it.” — Sal Albanese

petition to run for alderman or city council

Turnout is crucial in local government elections, as in 15 of the 30 most populous cities in the U.S., voter turnout is less than 20 percent.

Now that you have an idea of how to run for city council, now is the time to get started!

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