Jesse Helmer ran for city council in Ward 4 in London, Ontario. A first-time candidate running against a two-term incumbent, he was elected with 59.2% of the vote. We sat down with him to chat about his experience as a candidate.
How did you decide this was the election to run?
Three years ago I helped to organize an alumni reunion for the Loran Scholars Foundation as a staffer. Naheed Nenshi was one of the speakers at the conference and he really inspired me and drove home the importance of municipal government in people’s lives. I launched Better London shortly after the conference and started attending council meetings.
Our previous city council was fraught with division, with the Mayor leading a coalition of eight who outvoted the remaining seven councillors on most significant issues. They ended up running afoul of the open meeting rules in Ontario by having a lunch in a back room at a local restaurant, and then ran up a $97,000 legal defence bill that was covered by the city.
One of the policies this group pursued was an unsustainable and unrealistic 0% tax increase for four years. It was so frustrating to hear these politicians saying that we could maintain service levels and not pay more — as if inflation didn’t affect the city.
Their whole attitude was to play defence and protect the status quo. Looking at the challenges and opportunities in our city, I couldn’t stay on the sidelines. This council had considered a 10-year moratorium on new bike lanes. They had voted against more liberal rules for food trucks. They had nixed a green bin pilot for organic waste. We weren’t on the right track. Just over two years ago, I decided to run for council. I ran against the two-term incumbent councillor in my ward.
Why run to join council rather than continuing to work outside?
Having attended council and committee meetings over the years, it was clear to me that many of the incumbent councillors needed to be retired. There’s huge value in political advocacy and civic engagement outside of being a councillor, but if the councillors aren’t listening, it can be very frustrating.
What was it like being a candidate and running a campaign instead of volunteering on one?
It was wonderful. I’ve volunteered on many campaigns, but as a volunteer, even as someone who is helping to direct the campaign, ultimately it’s the candidate or the party that’s setting policy. So as a volunteer you can easily talk about why you support the candidate, but you’re somewhat limited in how you can engage in policy discussions. As a candidate, I could have direct conversations with residents about issues they wanted to discuss. As a policy wonk, I really enjoyed that freedom.
At the same time, so much of the campaign is consumed by door-to-door canvassing that you have very little time as a candidate to do anything else. I missed some of the variety of responsibilities and tasks that volunteers take on. I would have liked to write more.
How did you form the core campaign team?
We had an amazing team in Ward 4. A good mix of people from different parts of the ward and the city. Some of them were long-time friends I’ve campaigned with on provincial or federal campaigns. For others, this was their first political campaign as volunteers. I asked a lot of them and they delivered.
Recruiting volunteers was the easy part — we had a broad coalition of people who were very dedicated and motivated to elect a new councillor. But forming the campaign team on a rather tight budget, without some of the usual infrastructure like a campaign office, meant we had to be creative. Organizing for events like our launch party, the Pride London Parade and our major fundraiser helped to bring the team together and build that sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps that is so essential to a high-performing campaign team.
You mentioned spending a lot of time going door-to-door. Any stories that really stand out?
Starting around the beginning of August, we were canvassing every weeknight and weekend, other than the weekend I took off to attend my cousin’s wedding near Ottawa. I’ve canvassed a fair amount as a volunteer, but this was different.
Later in the campaign, in October, we were canvassing a group of five walk up apartment buildings. There was no superintendent, so they were hard to get into — we had to buzz residents until someone let us in the building.
There were two of us on the canvass, and we were working our way down from the third floor. In the previous building, only about one in ten people had answered the door, so we were a bit demoralized.
But I knocked on this one door at the end of the hall and an older gentleman answered. We had a good chat for a few minutes and I moved on to the next door. While I’m waiting for someone to answer that door, the fellow I’d just spoken with opens his door again and says: “I just wanted you to know — we’ve lived here for 20 years and we’ve never had a politician knock on our door, let alone spoken with one.” That one conversation really made the whole night for me. A great reminder of the importance of knocking on every door.
You were intentional about engaging volunteers that might not otherwise get involved politically. Why did you engage these folks? How did you engage them?
If we want to improve our politics, we need to get more people involved in the work of politics. Our campaign team had a good mix of experienced campaigners and people who were new to campaigning. I’d say this was the first municipal election campaign for more than half of our core campaign team.
At the outset of the campaign, I reached out directly to folks and asked them to get involved. A few of them decided to run themselves for school board and for a neighbouring municipality. A couple of others volunteered on more than one municipal campaign. I’d met most of them through Twitter first, or through people I knew from Twitter. I’m not sure if that’s somewhat unique to London, but in retrospect it was essential — they knew what I was about and I knew I needed them on my campaign team.
For the core campaign team, we managed the work of the campaign via Basecamp, which allowed more people to participate in campaign decision-making without having to attend a lot of in person meetings. Having attended my fair share of 7:30am daily campaign executive meetings, I can tell you — managing the campaign via Basecamp has a lot of advantages!
Any stories about volunteers, especially someone new to campaigning, that you’d like to share?
It was in early August and I was out canvassing. This was the beginning of our daily canvassing. One of our volunteers, Jennifer, had never canvassed before. After her first outing, she told me she’d be back the next day to canvass again. And she came back the day after that, too. Three summer evening canvasses in a row, and dozens more after that. I think she may have done the most canvassing of any volunteer.
Your campaign used NationBuilder. How did using that platform allow your campaign team and volunteers to be more effective?
I’m a huge fan of NationBuilder.
For one thing, it allowed us to run a paperless canvass. With the exception of one volunteer, we used NationBuilder in conjunction with Organizer to record the results of our canvassing. That meant that we spent more time knocking on doors and less time printing and doing data entry for a second time. That was really important in terms of maximizing our volunteer efforts and resources.
The other thing it allowed us to do was to organize our canvasses differently. We didn’t need to follow poll boundaries and so we avoided situations where you’d end up canvassing one side of the street and leaving the other side of the street until you did that poll.
NationBuilder also makes it so easy to share information and empower volunteers. We had a bunch of people who helped put up signs, for instance. We organized the work via Basecamp and shared the list of small signs and the list of large signs that needed to be installed that day. Sharing the lists, which were constantly updated based on requests from the web site and our door-to-door canvassing, was as simple as copying-and-pasting a URL into a Basecamp thread. And, of course, you can visualize any list on a map.
It also let us innovate. At the Pride London Parade, we used the built-in text messaging functionality of NationBuilder to create a crowdsourced digital Pride flag. Volunteers created a couple of hand-drawn signs saying “Text PRIDE to 226–270–0719" and we marched with them in the parade. Folks were asked “What does Pride mean to you?” and we created the digital Pride flag from the responses. We had almost 70 people participate in creating that flag during the parade. We put together the whole idea in a matter of a few days. That’s just one example of how the tools available on the NationBuilder platform really support creativity and innovation.
It was so helpful to have everything integrated. Our email open rates were quite high — always more than 50% — because we sent very specific emails. We asked canvassing volunteers about canvassing. Thanked donors for donating. Invited people to events who had already shown interest in the campaign by attending a previous event, or donating, or taking a sign. NationBuilder made it so easy to actually use this kind of information to improve how we communicated with our supporters.
Biggest barriers for new candidates?
I’d say one of the biggest barriers is earning the attention of local media. As a challenger, especially if you’re challenging a strong incumbent, you have to show the media that you can win. While you might want the other candidates to underestimate you, if you’re going to get coverage from the media you have to show some of your strength early on in the campaign.
After earning media coverage, I’d say the biggest barrier is ability to raise money. If you aren’t comfortable asking your friends, family, colleagues and total strangers to donate to your campaign, you’d better recruit a great fundraising chair!
Advice for others considering a run?
Start planning now. Talk to other folks who may be interested in running and ask yourself if you’d rather support one of them or run yourself. If we have a ranked ballot system in 2018—and I hope we do — we may see more candidates stepping forward.
Make sure you’re committed. A municipal campaign over 10 months requires a lot of your own time. You’ll need a very dedicated campaign team and you’ll need the resources to run a successful campaign.