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Running for office - and winning - as a first time candidate
Virginia Delegate-Elect Irene Shin shares what its like to go from operative to candidate
What’s it like to shift gears from working on political campaigns to running for office yourself? In this week’s issue of Campaigner, we spoke with Del-Elect Irene Shin, a longtime political and nonprofit staffer who ran for office in Virginia this year, defeated an incumbent in the primary and won the general election last month. Her campaign was known for trying new tactics to reach voters - and it ultimately paid off.
Q&A with Delegate-Elect Elect Irene Shin, Virginia House of Delegates
Campaigner: You’ve worked in politics for a while and know how these campaigns go… but I’m wondering what was the most surprising part of being an actual candidate and not a staffer working on a campaign?
Del-Elect Shin: I think it was the level of attachment that I grew to the folks whose doors I knocked on and the voters I talked to. One of my favorite things about being an organizer was spending time in a community, getting to know that community, investing in those people's stories, and taking stories and turning them into action via policy changes. And then when your time as an organizer comes to an end, my least favorite part would be saying goodbye to those folks and not having that continuity for them and the work that they do. I think what I found surprising was how quickly I reverted back to my organizer roots.
I think about this one voter who, just as an example, who talked to me about legalization [of marijuana] and how his wife has MS, and he didn't know that he could get a medical marijuana card in Virginia. And so I helped him through the process and helped him apply. It sometimes felt like I’m doing social service work door-to-door, and that was my favorite thing about being an organizer. And it certainly was true for being a candidate that that was my favorite thing that I didn't expect. I sort of thought that as a candidate, I wouldn’t grow so attached to my voters, but I actually do and I really loved that.
Campaigner: Running for office is really hard, even though you've worked in politics for a while. I'm wondering what was the biggest challenge of getting your campaign off the ground? Was it fundraising or endorsements or getting people to take you seriously?
Shin: I would say all of the above. I think certainly, age-old wisdom says fundraising is always the hardest part and that was not untrue for my campaign. I've worked in politics for a long time and all the candidates that I've worked for in the past were always much older than me. They're in their fifties or sixties and they have much more established careers. And so when they call up a friend who is also a senior-level executive, and they ask, ‘Hey, can you cut me a check for $2,700 bucks?’ They're like, sure, I can do that. For me, I was calling my friends who were all younger and being like, can you chip in a hundred dollars? And can I call your mom? So it literally was my early seed money was from all of my best friends and their parents chipping in a hundred bucks. And that was grueling and a slog because raising, you know, $100,000 in $2,800 increments is tough, but raising $20,000 in hundred-dollar increments was really, really tough. So I'd say fundraising definitely was hard.
As a primary challenger, I didn't get a ton of endorsements early on, but I was lucky enough ultimately to secure the endorsement of all three state senators who represent my district, who are all women. And I think they jumped in in part because they were excited about electing more women into office.
But you know, when you asked me what's the hardest thing about being a candidate - for me, it was the haters. I learned that tough or thick skin grows a lot faster than I thought it would. But being in the hot seat with a bunch of people who don't know you and have opinions about you, who lob all of these accusations at you for one thing or another, that was quite frankly the hardest thing.
A lot of it was also gendered. I don't know how much you paid attention to the primary part of it, but I definitely came in swinging in the primary. And that's just because as an operative, I know when you're running in a primary, you have to give folks a reason to hire you, but also a reason to fire the incumbent. So I took that to heart and I put into motion the thing that I knew was a good practice. So I came in swinging and people said awful things about me. They would say things like, ‘I thought she was nice.’ If I were a dude who came in with a bat swinging, you wouldn't feel this way about me, but so much of the perception was so very acutely gendered, and I would even say almost in some ways borderline had a lot to do with my race; being an AAPI woman and the perception of submissive, quiet, nice Asian women.
People went as far as to say things like “if she joins the Democratic caucus, she's just gonna be another submissive member of the House Caucus leadership”. And I was like, WOW. If you can't see how gendered and racist that sentence is, like we've got a bigger problem here. And that was the hardest part. Being able to sit with myself and know that all these people who didn't know me hated me really, really sucked.
Campaigner: As you know, everyone has a hot take about the issues that were motivating voters in Virginia this year. Kind of turning that on its head, particularly when thinking about your campaign and challenging an incumbent or in the general, why did you focus on the issues that you did? How did you kind of build your campaign platform?
Shin: Yeah, for all the hot takes, I think the hot take I try to remind the folks of is that we had the highest ever turnout this past year, and in my district, I got the most votes of any candidate who's run in this district ever, and won with the widest margin of votes. So, I in particular do not believe the hot takes that made this election to be a referendum on Democratic politics or Democratic policies, I actually don't believe that to be true. The fact that we lost the House majority by less than 900 votes… If we picked up [Del. Martha] Mugler’s seat with less than a hundred votes, if we picked up [Del. Alex] Askew’s seat with 120 votes, this was not a referendum by any means. And let's remind folks, we are still running on Republican-drawn maps here. That is what it is. So I think there's a lot of narratives around...was it Biden’s numbers, it was policy, it was all of this stuff, but for this district, I certainly didn't feel that that was true.
Some of the things that I built my campaign around were universal pre-K, making sure that all kids can access education at the same time. It's insane that not all of our students start their academic journeys on even footing. It's not just about making sure there's educational equity for our kids, but also about making sure that families can get back into the workforce. And when you think about pre-K as an early childhood or early childcare solution, how do we get moms who often bear the burden of caregiving in their homes with their kids, how do we get women back into the workforce earlier when you saw two million women leave the workforce in 2020?
The other two things I have campaigned on were paid sick leave and paid family medical leave. And it was funny because when I started my campaign, those were not outlined in the Build Back Better Act. But when the President finally came out and was like, universal pre-K, paid family medical leave, paid sick leave, there you go! I didn't do any polling in my district, but I was like, great - this must be something that polls well and that gets to the heart of what people are worried about right now. There was a lot of vindication and hearing those points outlined and outlined in the Build Back Better Act.
People have a lot of opinions on Democrats’ messaging, and I think sometimes we forget that the things that we care and talk a lot about - [marijuana] legalization, criminal justice reform, voting rights - those can feel abstract to voters, and they’re not necessarily very tangible in the day-to-day lives of most of our voters. What we need to focus on is the work that Democrats have done to deliver for stronger communities, for stronger families, specifically around building a resilient and healthy economy, and I hope that we'll see a pivot to that.
“What we need to focus on is the work that Democrats have done to deliver for stronger communities, for stronger families, specifically around building a resilient and healthy economy, and I hope that we'll see a pivot to that.”
Campaigner: In terms of tactics, I was very impressed that you were running Snapchat ads in a state legislative race, which is not common whatsoever. You might be one of two state legislative candidates nationwide this year that ran Snapchat ads. What was the thinking behind your campaign tactics, and which tactics do you think had the greatest ROI in terms of reaching voters?
Shin: As an operative, one of the things that I used to find most frustrating was there was never a very tangible way to track the metrics or ROI on the investments that we were making. I find that to continue to be a source of frustration as a candidate. You throw a million things at the wall and hope for them all to work in some way, in order for you to be able to secure a win. That position has not changed for me surprisingly, as a candidate. I think the tactics that we took really go back to what I know to be tried and true. We spent a ton of time knocking doors and talking to voters. We knocked 29,000 doors, and my mom and my dad knocked like 6,000 doors on their own.
A number of times that I was at the polling place on Election Day, people would come by and tell me that they talked to one of my parents. It was really great.
The tactics that worked for me that I know to be tried and true are to meet voters where they are and talk to them where they are. And so when we were thinking about direct mail, for example, I wish I could show you my opponent’s mail piece in comparison to my mail piece. My [primary] opponent’s mail piece was filled with like size four font of all the things that the Democrats have done while he's in an office. That’s great, but if a person is taking that from their mailbox to their trash can and if you have two and a half seconds to catch their attention, what's the takeaway? They're not gonna read size four font. So we really focused on making our mail pieces with easily digestible top headlines, a simple takeaway, and then focusing on redundancy. We spent a lot of money on mail because we wanted to continue reaching people over and over again.
I think on digital, we understand that's where people actually spend their time. So we did a bunch of ads, not just on Snapchat, but on Facebook, on Instagram and spent time figuring out how to make our message more accessible on these mediums and platforms - knowing that we only have the 1.5 seconds it takes for someone to scroll. If I had more money, I would've done a lot more on streaming services because they don’t allow you to skip the first five seconds of an ad.
Finally, I would say that as an operative, I always understood that production costs were high. Production costs are really high for candidates and I could not afford to do anything nicer or fancier like some congressional candidates have done. I didn’t have the money to run really high-quality production video ads. We had to think about what does low production value but high engagement content look like, and where is that intersection and how do we figure it out? I think it's something that I am really interested in pursuing in the future. I think one way that I’m gonna try and test that is, I don't use TikTok right now, but I'd like to be a political TikTok user. Figuring out how we make the government and how we make the General Assembly more accessible on these mediums with short-form video.
Campaigner: That would be amazing! What's one piece of advice that you have for folks wanting to run for office, now that you're officially a delegate-elect?
Shin: Something I hear from women, particularly who are thinking about running for office is this pragmatic and utilitarian approach to their campaign. They're like, well, I want to run if there's a need. I want to encourage folks to not underestimate the value of your perspective or your experiences being in a room where decisions are being made.
One of the reasons that I ran for office and do the work that I do is because I ultimately fundamentally believe that policies can be most impactful if they are led and built by people who are going to be impacted by this policy. When you have your lived experiences that show up in that room, you add a different lens and you add a different perspective, and I think that in and of itself is inherently so valuable to bring to the table. I think that folks who want to run for office shouldn't forget that, and don't underestimate the values or perspectives and experiences that you bring. 🇺🇸
Arena Toolbox Highlights:
Del.-Elect Shin discusses how she used digital ads, including SnapChat, to talk to and mobilize voters. Check out this Arena Tool to learn more about how to work with digital firms that run digital ads.
Del.-Elect Shin reflects on just how close some of the Virginia House of Delegates races were - some coming down to less than 200 votes. Learn more about what you do if your race is too close to call on Arena Toolbox.
Arena Training Highlight:
Tech to Elections: Campaigns 101 for Tech Workers is a 2.5 day virtual training designed to help tech and data workers learn how they can put their skills to work electing Democrats and progressives in 2022. Applications are due Dec 15th (early admission) or Jan 4th (general admission).
That’s it for Campaigner this week! If you enjoyed reading this issue, give it a share on the socials!