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What the Artist Campaign School Taught Me About Running for Public Office

The inaugural Artist Campaign School taught us that entering politics as a participant means we must — to some degree — acknowledge the usefulness and necessity of political power, and make peace with using it.

Image of the artists gathered at Artist Campaign School (photo courtesy of Artist Campaign School)

DETROIT — There are three things every political campaign thrives on: money, people and time.

The money and the people can change, but in a campaign, time is fixed. You have to pick your battles, use resources strategically, and attract as many voters as possible from your opponent — all by election day. The appearances, the messaging, the fundraising, coalition building, connecting with voters, navigating party elites, maintaining authenticity while representing the interests of many—it is quite literally an art. And depending where you fall politically, you may think it is an art in crisis.

For 30 artists, myself included, at the first Artist Campaign School organized by Fractured Atlas and hosted in Detroit, exposure to the nuts and bolts of running a campaign for public office came with a key question: can we be artists, genuine to our interests and communities while still “playing politics”? And secondly, what do we, as a group of artists, have to offer that could influence the political structure?

With a team of campaign professionals leading training sessions and seminars, the tone of the instruction was positive and inspiring. Introductions came with the request to identify the one issue that keeps you up at night. The room flowed with the familiar and the necessary: “immigration reform,” “education,” “affordability,” “housing rights,” “racial justice,” “voter’s rights,” “economic equity,” “displacement.” (My answer was “more public ownership of private wealth.”) While articulating these issues helped us get a sense of the concerns in the room, it quickly became clear that there is a fraught path between values and policy — particularly because of the power it takes to move from the former to the latter. As I processed training on voter targeting, messaging, identity building, stump speeches, outreach, fundraising, bookkeeping, and the legal aspects of running for office, this role of power in politics remained an inescapable question.

As artists, many of us are accustomed to critiquing power, negating it, building it for communities, building it for ourselves, potentially undermining it — but to positively pursue it consciously is an uneasy step. For Lauren Ruffin, a leading organizer of Artist Campaign School, this step is simply one artists have to learn to take. In a phone conversation after the event, she summarized her position:

Part of my reasoning in creating the Artist Campaign School is that coalition building can only take you so far. At some point someone has to run for office to represent those beliefs. Influence is not enough. Artists have to stop being afraid of power. We have to learn how to obtain it and wield it to create the world we want.

This strategy of moving beyond influence and entering the fray is one that has worked all too well for conservative politicians pursuing conservative policies. The Federalist Society, created in 1982 at Yale Law School, not only worked to train lawyers, politicians and future judges for a conservative reading of the law but to also “create the conditions in which conservative legal ideas can be debated and thrive.” The group groomed Antonin Scalia for a judicial nomination under Reagan, ultimately leading to his Supreme Court career and numerous conservative majority opinions, including the 2008 decision cementing the Second Amendment right to bear arms. And today, recently appointed conservative Neil Gorsuch is a member of the Federalist Society. The organization has played a role supporting at least a third of the current Supreme Court.

For Ruffin, Artist Campaign School is a first step in the long game that perhaps has waited too long to start. With a background in law and politics, she references the Tea Party movement and its successful path from values to policy in under ten years as a call to arms. “If you had told me ten years ago that restricting reproductive rights and women’s access to health care might be a thing — I’d be shocked. So we have to organize in a very forward way.” For the Artist Campaign School, this sense of purpose rings loud and clear, yet in the process we were still left to consider why artists should be involved and what wielding power should look like.

One of the most insightful moments of the conference came from Nikkita Oliver, the 2017 mayoral primary candidate for the Seattle People’s Party who came within 1,170 votes of appearing on the mayoral ballot. Her background as a spoken-word artist, a teacher, community activist, and lawyer gave her the skills to lead a campaign with her name; but it was the strong positive support of her community and the organizing of the Seattle People’s Party, which effectively encouraged her to represent them, that led to endorsements from city council members, unions, and editorial boards. “This work is much bigger than a single election,” Oliver repeated in her talk to our group. She stressed the importance of community-led organizing — for accountability and visibility for those who do not feel they can run for office or are represented by their political leaders. She clearly framed her goals and her supporters’ goals as rooted in movements, not campaign timelines.

In this way Oliver’s talk felt different from the rest of the training. Winning a campaign for public office was not the only goal. The timeline did not end on election day and it did not end with a single candidate’s bid, but was one organized moment within an ongoing process of building positive support. It was Oliver’s message and the work of the Seattle People’s Party that felt that most to me like creating the conditions in which to wield power — with an eye on the long game.

S. Surface, is a curator, designer, resident of Seattle, member of the Seattle Arts Commission and a fellow member of the Artist Campaign School, who attested to the power of Oliver’s campaign. “Not only was her position in the community earned, but her skills, of which being an artist is only one, gave her a total practice that was uniquely qualified and the most connected to her community.” When I asked them about their experience at the Artist Campaign School, S. Surface was quick to laud Fractured Atlas for the endeavor while also questioning the presumed investment in artists specifically. “I’m not sure it has to be artists, or if artists have a particular kind of skill that is helpful in politics. But artists are a kind of citizen and we need to demonstrate that many kinds of citizens should be welcomed and encouraged to enter politics.”

The participating artists pose at the end of the sessions (photo by @Gigsy)

This role of the artist in making the unfamiliar familiar seems to be one many participants are more fully embracing. Dallas-based artist, M. Giovanni Valderas, who was recently appointed to the Cultural Affairs Commission in Dallas, left the weekend feeling “fearless to jump into the political system and make a positive impact.” While the realities of mounting a campaign are daunting, he “left the conference feeling inspired by others who were just as committed as I was to engage and empower our communities. The weekend only reaffirmed my commitment.”

The lesson to “just start” was most thoroughly reinforced by presenter Luis Calderin, a DJ and marketing creative who discussed his position with the Bernie Sanders campaign — winning over top level talent to support and advocate for Sanders’s platform — all with no offical campaign experience. His roots in the Burlington, Vermont community as a brand manager for a locally based snowboarding company were his credentials and entry to electoral politics; taking a grassroots approach and scaling it up. As Calderin explains, Sanders’s instruction was to not make the campaign about him but “about the movement.”

So whether or not Artist Campaign School helps to field candidates for the 2018 or 2020 campaigns remains to be seen, but the impetus to build ongoing movements beyond individual campaigns is clearly felt. For artists, entering politics as a participant means we must — to some degree — acknowledge the usefulness and necessity of political power, and make peace with using it. This acknowledgment means rethinking antagonistic relationships with public officials and the electoral process and learning to see community-led movements as capable of building coalitions and navigating the path from values to policy with accountability and trust. In short, this means we should support politicians when we feel confident in the coalitions they represent, and consider being those politicians when the timing is right. If there was ever a time to believe that is possible, we are in it now.

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