How to climb the ladder of political engagement if you don’t run for office (yet)

I don’t feel like I can walk under ladders every day, but generally speaking, I’m lucky and I’ve even been able to climb higher on the ladder of political engagement than I ever imagined: A few people know I moved to Ohio not quite 30 years ago to get a joint degree in law and social work, thinking very specifically I would become a juvenile court judge. It was the fall of 1988. But then I saw them – advertisements for candidates running to be judges. I didn’t understand. I mean, I really did not understand. The idea that people had to run for and we would have to vote for someone who if elected was then to be an impartial judge was foreign to me, and honestly made no sense. But once I accepted that Ohioans elect state and local judges (where I came from, they’re appointed), I laughed and said, well that ends that. I’ll never run for office. It’s just a popularity contest. Not. gonna. happen. ever. Ever is a long time, but for me it turned out to be 21 years until I conquered my fear of that particular height on the political engagement ladder.

How many rungs are there, exactly? Which ones have you surpassed? And how much higher might you go in 2018, a year that follows one of the most extraordinarily political years on record?

Think you’re not political? Good one. The truth is that even people who say they’re not political, don’t like politics or say they hate politics very likely have been political in their life. Are you a parent who needed to take care of something for your child, or a child with parents who have age or health-related needs and caretakers? Are you a customer who has ever been wronged by a retailer, vendor or service person? Do you shop online, pay bills, make appointments or use different modes of transportation?

It’s hard to imagine any adult who can answer no to all those scenarios, and every one of those scenarios, during a lifetime, is almost certain to involve some episode that is going to drive a person to exercising a little (or maybe a lot of) political will: which is to say, everyone gets political about something. (Read this for a deeper dive into the semantics of the concept of “being political”.)

Maybe you’ve done the calculation and have said no to running for office – at least for now. But there are many ways to test out the possibility. First, the notion of a ladder of engagement goes back to the late 1960’s and this piece, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”, by Sherry Arnstein. It’s been updated for the digital era, it’s spawned tech tools and it’s been examined in relation to how the internet does or doesn’t prod people to engage more. There’s even this complex engagement continuum that is circular, rather than a ladder.

Practically speaking though, what does this have to do with anyone?

First, I am not referring to engagement in the sense of democratic participation by the public in the way government makes and implements decisions. I am talking about engagement in terms of how individuals connect and contribute to an already-in-existence government, in preparation for possibly running for an elected public office. For example, just a couple of days ago I spoke with a long-time friend who has been interested in government transparency, accountability and civic participation for several years. This person has dabbled in a variety of activities related to electoral politics and told me they’re very likely to seek a position on a civil service commission. That is an excellent way to step up a rung and from there, run for office.

I have a friend who, a few years ago, was newly married and starting a family and didn’t want to run but served on a charter review commission. I have a friend who has been a writer and a government employee in the science world and just ran and won an elected seat on a county body of government. One of my public school district’s new school board members is someone who has been a lawyer for years, is a mother of two adult kids, has volunteered for numerous local and national political campaigns and decided it was time to go to the next level of involvement.

I’ve seen neighbors choose to go onto civic leagues and then civic league members get appointments to elected office and then run for those same seats.

There is no one way to get to elected office, but there are many ways to be around elected office so you can learn what it’s about and figure out what feels right for you, as you feel more and more compelled to act on all that needs to be done.

I never thought I’d ever run for office. Never say never.


3 thoughts on “How to climb the ladder of political engagement if you don’t run for office (yet)

  1. Good morning Jill,

    For those who would like to step on the very lowest rung and see how it feels, I suggest running for a seat on your county’s Central Committee as a Precinct Committee Leader.

    This was the most important advice that Robert Heinlein offered in his book—written in 1956 but unpublished until 1992—Take Back Your Government.

    From Steve Holecko, political director of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus:

    You only need 5 valid signatures of Democrats or Independents to get on the ballot [to run for the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Central Committee]. There is no filling fee. CCPC will be helping our candidates every step of the way to make this an easy and rewarding experience.

    You can reach Steve at 440.220.874 or

    If you don’t think being political is too weird, get your toe wet.



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