How to Run For City Council

Running for a council seat is relatively simple, but in the way chess is simple -- there are a few straightforward rules but an endless variety of strategies, challenges, and twists and turns.

The basic part is to meet the city charter's guidelines for eligible candidates. In Manchester, N.H., for example, the rules are simple:

  • Aldermen representing a ward shall be residents and qualified voters of the ward. Aldermen at-large shall be residents of the city.
  • Aldermen shall be elected to serve a term of two years.
  • The board of aldermen shall be the final judge of the election and qualifications of its members.

The complex part is building on those rules to campaign for the office. In 2008, Manchester's Jim Roy, a retired firefighter and lifelong resident, decided to stop watching city meetings on television and run for the open Ward 4 seat. In June, he filed his intent to run and started gearing up for the run to the primary, slated for September. There were three people running for the same seat, and two had already served as the ward's representative in past years.

"The biggest thing for me was to get out there, go door-to-door, and get some name recognition," he says.

His strategy is similar to that for representatives in local governments: Knock on doors, introduce yourself, and say why you're running. While it is said all politics are local politics, larger cities mean bigger campaigns. And bigger campaigns mean more money. Larger city campaigns, like in Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollar and require managers and strategists. For Roy, the whole campaign cost about $2,000.

He says he didn't run for the money, but to help his constituents and bring some transparency to city hall focusing on what he said were either inefficient or ineffectual city departments or programs. This same motivation leads average people to brave politics and run for local government as well.

If you want to try your hand at local government the best way is check your city or town's charter, file for office, and start pounding the pavement. Local politics can be brutal, so be prepared, but they can be rewarding as well by giving a deeper insight into government.