Running as new candidate for the State Legislature is no walk in the park, unless that park functions as an obstacle course. Candidates may make calculated decisions before attempting to run, though there are inevitable unforeseen challenges and strategies to prepare a candidate for the ride to the Capital.
Gaining ground as a young candidate 091212 NEWS 1 Capital City Weekly Running as new candidate for the State Legislature is no walk in the park, unless that park functions as an obstacle course. Candidates may make calculated decisions before attempting to run, though there are inevitable unforeseen challenges and strategies to prepare a candidate for the ride to the Capital.

Photo By Amanda Compton / Capital City Weekly

State Legislature candidates could find themselves working here, the Alaska State Capital building.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Story last updated at 9/12/2012 - 2:20 pm

Gaining ground as a young candidate

Running as new candidate for the State Legislature is no walk in the park, unless that park functions as an obstacle course. Candidates may make calculated decisions before attempting to run, though there are inevitable unforeseen challenges and strategies to prepare a candidate for the ride to the Capital.

Jonathon Kreiss-Tomkins, a 23 year old from Sitka, has taken on the challenge. Not all college graduates know what they are moving on to after shaking the hand of the president of their institution upon receiving a diploma and returning to their seat. Kreiss-Tomkins didn't face this uncertainty when he graduated this past spring.

What is funny about Kreiss-Tomkins' campaign for a District 34 State House seat is not that he is 23, but a combination of his age, that running for political office and describes his parents as "apolitical."

Kreiss-Tomkins is, in fact, quite serious about his choice to try and represent the region of Alaska that essentially covers the rural areas of Southeast, as well as Haines and Sitka. And despite his age, he's actually rather experienced.

"I got started at perhaps a disturbingly young age," he said.

When he was 13 he was heavily involved in running Howard Dean's presidential campaign in Sitka, his hometown, which is now, due to the recent state redistricting, included in District 34.

"I've worked campaigns in the past and I've done policy work for various organizations," Kreiss-Tomkins said. He served as a recruiter for the State Democratic Party through high school and into college.

Kreiss-Tomkins believes most of his potential constituents care less about his age and more about adequate representation.

"Being young, I don't think, affects most people," he said. "I work hard to learn the issues in and out, backwards and forwards, know the communities as if they were my home, and that's what's necessary to do a good job as a legislator."

Kreiss-Tomkins is running as a Democrat against Republican Bill Thomas from Haines. Thomas has served as the District's representative for eight years. Kreiss-Tomkins estimates there's about a 42 year age difference between them.

"Honestly, it doesn't matter," he said. "People care if you care about them. I can't say how many times people have mentioned the phrase 'new blood' or 'new energy' to me. There's a lot of dissatisfaction with the status quo right now. Being young and (having) new energy and new ideas is seen as a way to change the status quo."

But regardless of how well the public may initially accept you, there's a lot to learn. Jesse Kiehl, a legislative aide to Sen. Dennis Egan, has observed many new candidates attempt to take a seat in the State Legislature, and is generous in sharing his advice. Kiehl explained that many new candidates, who possess the motivation and interest to run and have been active in their communities, find themselves overwhelmingly inundated.

"All of a sudden, you've filed for office and every interest group with a questionnaire wants detailed answers from you," Kiehl said. "I don't care who you are, you're not an expert in child care policy, Medicaid, resource development and 12 other issues." Kiehl tapped his watch for emphasis. "You're being pulled in all these different directions and the clock's ticking. It's very challenging."

Dennis DeWitt, a contract lobbyist with eight years of experience in the State Legislature and four under former Gov. Frank Murkowski agreed.

DeWitt said he advises new candidates to sit down and sketch out their positions on various issues.

"Everybody has in their own mind the notion of what they think about things," DeWitt said. "But it's an amazing process, as a candidate, if you sit down and write out the answer to the question, the position you want on that issue. It helps the candidate clarify what they want to communicate."

This process, DeWitt said, is extremely beneficial to the candidate and their staff.

"As the campaign progresses, you get 450,000 surveys," DeWitt estimated. "It seems like everyone and their brother sends a survey. If you know ahead of time, if you got it down, it's easy to answer those."

DeWitt also gave a few words of caution.

"The only thing you really have in politics is your word. You have to be careful when you make commitments and you have to be there when you make one."

He also warned that a candidate has to be prepared for his or her positions and actions to be scrutinized.

"People are going to say things about that will really hurt," DeWitt said. "Most people that get into politics think they have thick skin, sometimes it's not thick enough."

Both Kiehl and DeWitt couldn't overemphasize the factor of time consumption in the process of serving in the legislature.

"If (the candidate has) a family, they need to really sit down and go over the probability of winning with their family," DeWitt advised. "Not only what the campaign is going to take, but what being a legislator is going to take. It's a lot more demanding than what people think."

"There's a reason candidates thank their families," Kiehl said, explaining what a tremendous amount of time is required. "If that's not the way your family works, it's very difficult to share that burden. It needs to work for you and your family or it won't work. People who are thinking about running need to think about their whole life, including their family."

In addition to sheer time, Kiehl points to the necessary fundraising component of running for office that can be a very difficult challenge for new candidates. Kiehl said that when he's advising, he tells them to always carry contribution envelopes.

"When a conversation with someone goes well," Kiehl said he tells candidates, "End it with, 'Can I ask you for one more piece of help? This has been a great conversation and I almost hate to do this.'"

Kiehl explained that the act of asking for money can come in multiple forms. Perhaps the potential donor would be more apt to sponsor a radio spot or have some more tangible contribution than a check. He suggests that candidates assess what form the most profitable contribution from donors may take, beneficial for both the candidate and the donor.

Kiehl laughed, and explained that after giving this advice to candidates, they generally say, "Thanks for your help," but then don't ask him for money. "It's that hard," he said. "They offer to pick up the check. I'm like, 'No, stop.'"

Kiehl acknowledged that money isn't everything when running for office, but said, "If you don't raise some, you're very unlikely to get there."

Another important component of the campaign process that both Kiehl and DeWitt recognize is staff selection. Though a candidate isn't yet an elected official, having an idea of who may potentially serve as the support can't be an afterthought.

"I don't like to spend a lot of time in the campaign (on thinking about staff)," DeWitt said. "But it's good for the candidate to have in the back of their mind what kind of people they want to talk to. Once you become elected there's a lot of folks that want to be there to help you."

Kiehl explained that most candidates, should they be elected, are likely to want their campaign managers to join their staff, as they have likely developed a strong bond and trust. However, said Kiehl, the odds are high that the campaign manager does not have a plethora of experience, nor do newly elected officials have an abundance of money for staff salaries.

"Allocating (the staff salary budget) between the person that you trust and know and value their work ethic, and then somebody with legislative experience, someone who can help guide you through the legislative process and policy details," Kiehl said, is a calculated balancing act. "There's no shortage of eager young folks who want to get involved in government. We see the resumes come through every year. But a lot of brand new legislators want to have an old hand in the office. That has some value."

Ultimately, DeWitt said, at the end of the day it's the elected official that will be calling the shots. While an official shouldn't be looking for what DeWitt called "One hundred percent Yes Men," finding a balance between a proactive and educated staff with one that also recognizes just where they sit - or don't - is essential.

"The boss has gotta make the decision," DeWitt said. "If you're staff, you have to be working in the context (of how) to make (the) boss effective."

One of the last necessary elements to becoming a successful legislator that both DeWitt and Kiehl recognize is patience. That is, before throwing the hat into the ring, DeWitt said, a potential candidate has to realize that he or she will not, should a successful election occur, simply flip a switch and spark immediate change.

DeWitt stressed that in order to advance one's agenda, the official will have to work with the grain just enough to avoid any sparks.

"In the real world, surprising someone might get a short term advantage of some sort, but you only get it once," DeWitt said. "It's better to work with people without trying to surprise them. That's really what the legislative process is about."

Kiehl used a nautical analogy to describe the advancement of officials' agendas.

"The ship of State (Legislature) turns more like an aircraft carrier than like a 16 foot sail boat," Kiehl said. "It's not uncommon for a new legislator to think 'We're going to come at it with an angle. It may take awhile but we'll get there.' But the aircraft carrier doesn't tack into the wind. You may fight the fight and never see appreciable movement. It may be a whole life time."

Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at