Amanda Litman Wants You to Run for Something
Shaping the Next Generation of Pro-Democracy Politicians
I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Amanda Litman, who is the co-founder and executive director of Run for Something, a PAC that recruits and supports young, diverse progressives running for down-ballot office—since 2017, they’ve elected more than 500 people across the country. She’s also the author of the 2017 book, Run for Something: A Real Talk Guide to Fixing the System Yourself. Previous positions included the email director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, digital director for Charlie Crist's 2014 Florida gubernatorial campaign, and deputy email director for Organizing for Action. Our conversation took place on October 12, 2021, and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): Run for Something has had real impact. Can you tell me how you identify and guide candidates?
Amanda Litman (AL): People sign up on our website, they look up an office they might be able to run for in the coming year. They get a soft welcome to the organization. But the big thing is an invitation to join a conference call every week. On those calls, we explain basic answers to standard questions every first-time candidate has: how do I do this? How much does it cost? Is this possible? What can you do for me? They can then opt into having a one-on-one with one of our volunteers.
Candidates get access to things like guides on how to file and get on the ballot in every state, and trainings and webinars that we or our partners run. We work with basically every organization in the Democratic or progressive organization ecosystem. We also have about 500 mentors across the country who work with candidates one-on-one. These are both private sector and nonprofit sector experts, as well as folks from government who advise folks for free.
Once they officially file and get on the ballot, they can apply for our endorsement. We endorse about half the people who apply. These are primarily folks 40 and younger, running for things like school boards, city councils, and state legislatures, all for the first or second time. Our endorsed candidates are who we amplify to reporters and promote on social media. We give them some money, we support with volunteer recruitment. It's basically soup to nuts from figuring out what you might want to run for all the way through to even post-election day. How do you close out a campaign? How do you do govern? It's a full service support program.
RBG: We hear a lot about the right's "take back the country" strategy and the extremists and QAnon followers who are running for school boards and town councils. What you're doing is really a counter to this. Can you talk about electoral strategy?
AL: When Run for Something launched in 2017, we explicitly did not have a geographic focus, and we approached it as an investment in talent, not geography, knowing that, especially for places where Democrats hadn't won in a long time, it was a little bit tautological. Maybe Democrats hadn't won because of demographics, or because Republicans break the rules, but some Democrats hadn't tried because they didn't think they could win. So we really tried to approach it with a sense of not cutting off our nose to spite our face or not self-censoring. We also made a really intentional decision not to pay any attention to federal elections.
There are more than half a million elections in the United States. Most of them are not Congress. Most of them were not the presidency. And most of them actually do things, unlike Congress, which right now is just the most unpleasant country club experience. You want to focus on the offices where politically and policy wise you can make a meaningful difference.
We know that this is important to do because Republicans have been doing it for decades. The Koch brothers and the broader mega donor network have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on local elections, specifically around controlling the rules of those elections. They focus on state legislatures, which do everything from voting rights to gerrymandering, to reproductive choice, as well as school boards and city county municipal offices.
I think the school board stuff in particular is really alarming. There's a quote from Ralph Reed [leader of the Christian Coalition in the 1990s]. He said, "I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members." These offices play a foundational role in determining the kinds of citizens that kids ultimately become. The way that they are treated in school cultivates the kind of people they grow up to be.
We believe that our work is on the front lines of defending and expanding democracy. But we as a nation are at a crisis point because the far right has invested for decades in all of these offices. It's probably not too late yet, but we're really close
RBG: You recently partnered with Snapchat and I think that's extremely exciting and a smart way to connect with young people. What are the platforms and issues that are proving especially appealing to young Americans and can motivate political involvement? I imagine climate change is one.
AL: I think it's anything that really engages them in a way that feels like it's not bullshit. That might be hard to define, but 18-21 year olds can really smell BS out, and they do not suffer fools.
RBG: I know that from teaching undergraduates!
AL: Young people are absolutely engaged on things like climate, civil rights, education, healthcare, and jobs, which are the things that Snapchatters identified as their number top five issues. They want a candidate who will be real with them, and even if they don't agree with everything they know that person will level with them in a way that is authentic to who they are and who the candidate is. I can understand why Bernie Sanders was the candidate for young people in 2016, because he didn't BS them.
RBG: Are the Democrats prepared to be taking on this struggle?
AL: No. We have reached a point where there is a party that is pro-democracy and a party that is anti-democracy. I don't know how you compromise there. Republicans have such a leg up here. They have rigged the rules, between voter suppression and gerrymandering, and even things like limiting access to affordable higher education, keeping the minimum wage low, all of that is in service of controlling power.
I am hopeful and cautiously optimistic that the work that Run for Something is doing to build pro-democracy support on a local level, even and especially in red states, can mitigate some of this and can provide as much of a defense against it as possible.
RBG: So what do you do personally to keep calm and regenerate?
AL: I am a Peloton evangelist. I work out every day. It's critical for my mental health. I read a lot, mostly trash, sometimes not. I think that I'm in a really privileged place within the political space in that my work is so rejuvenating. When you focus on local politics and get to work with inspiring candidates, when you get to see people take the journey from candidate to elected official and then give back to the community to help more young people, it's so inspiring.