What it takes to run for office as an architect

The Wisconsin State Capitol building in springtime

The Wisconsin State Capitol in springtime

Two 2018 candidates share their experiences, lessons learned, and advice for other architects looking to enter politics

As the 2018 midterm election draws near, the US is experiencing a surge of diverse candidates for public office. Among them are architects, who can play a unique role in transforming policy and communities. John Glenn, AIA, is seeking a seat in Arizona State House of Representatives, with hoping to assert value for the profession of architecture and strengthen the state’s economy and education system. In California, Laura Oatman, AIA, recently ran for US congress in the state’s 48th District, fighting for progressive legislation on jobs, climate change, and human rights. Propelled by the fundamental determination required of all architects, these two leaders demonstrate the importance of starting small and pursuing collaboration to create change in government.

How can architects make an impact through political service?  

John Glenn, AIA: Architects are well suited for public service because we are natural agents for change. We work to make our communities stronger. We’re always looking towards the future to plan and prepare. All too often, our elected leaders are reactionary. We need more planners that are thinking 10, 20, and 30 years down the line. Whether it’s a local school board or city council, there are decisions being made every day by elected leaders where I believe an architect’s perspective would be invaluable.  

Laura Oatman, AIA: We need more architects in public office. Too many attorneys see the world as a zero-sum game: you win or you lose. Architects see things differently. We are trained to put together teams of diverse individuals with competing agendas and interests, find common ground, draw up coordinated plans, and make dreams into reality.  

What do you – and architects in general – offer that stands out from other candidates? 

Glenn: I believe architects are leaders, problem solvers and coalition builders, it’s a function of our practice that provides invaluable skills for public office. Architects advance solutions that directly address our social, economic and environmental challenges.

Oatman: Generally, architects are not politicians or millionaires, so we are much more relatable to the average voter. We know the struggles that many have undergone and continue to go through.

What are some unexpected experiences or challenges you've had during the process of running for office? 

Oatman: Money, money and money. Did I mention money? As a middle-class architect and small business owner, I couldn’t afford to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars of my own money into my campaign. As a first-time candidate, I didn’t have the connections within the party for them to jump on-board right away and help me. I raised a decent sum of money – about $250,000 – all from family and friends, most of whom are also architects without piles of money in the bank. Unfortunately, it remains very expensive to run a congressional campaign.  

Glenn: I find myself at crossroad between my practice and this campaign. Since deciding to run for office, my workload has tripled. It’s great, but it also creates a challenge where I need to strike balance and dedicate enough time to both sides.  

Any advice for an architect who's considering a run for office?

Glenn: Make sure you’re prepared to turn your life upside down for the duration of the campaign. Make sure you’re aware of the tremendous sacrifice it takes. You will be taking time away from your practice, family, and social life for the duration of the campaign. You will enjoy the rewarding journey, I promise. There is no one else behind you in line. Your community needs your leadership.   

Oatman: Start by just generally getting involved with your community – your local political clubs and non-profits that speak to your passion. Then run for local office on your city council, school board, or water board. If you work your way gradually up the ladder, it will be much easier for you to gain party support and raise money when you are more of a known figure. If you do decide to run for office, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons – not for ego, power, or a paycheck – but for a life of service.

Want to get involved? Engage with our Center for Civic Leadership to learn more about being a citizen architect and living your life as a leader. You can also tap into the Legislative Action Network and raise your voice in support of issues important to architects.

Kathleen M. O’Donnell is a writer/editor at AIA, specializing in practice and professional development topics and Institute coverage.

Image credits

The Wisconsin State Capitol building in springtime

Vijay Kumar Koulampet

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