Taylor Tobin
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If the midterm elections of 2018 have taught us anything, it’s that female politicians are here to stay, and they’re ready to make their voices heard in a big way. During the election season, a record number of women (125, to be exact) emerged victorious from their national campaigns and will take their seats in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and numerous state governorships. Millennial women in particular made a strong impression during this election cycle, with an unprecedented number of young women showing up at the polls and helping candidates like 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York win high-profile races. 

A youth wave in the political scene feels long overdue, but if you’re a prospective politico looking to break into the scene, the correct path can seem a bit murky. That’s why we’re breaking down the process of becoming a politician: how to start, what skills and education you require, how long it takes to hit your stride, and the compensation you can expect.

How do you begin a career in politics?

As the recent political climate has made abundantly clear, there isn’t a clear, generally-agreed-upon path to a career in politics. Our current president never held political office before his election, and plenty of local and national offices are currently occupied by individuals with little work history in the field. However, if you’re interested in building your knowledge of the political system and starting your career from an informed place, there are methods of launching yourself that let you learn and grow as your journey progresses.

As a first-timer seeking to understand the world of politics, local government makes an excellent starting point. Most towns and urban neighborhoods offer open town hall and community board meetings, which allow residents to hear what their local politicians have in the works and present their own questions about issues affecting their area. Attending these meetings gives you an inside glimpse at the workings of local government and can help demystify the whole process. If you then decide that you’d like to pursue local politics further, you can register for a political party and attend their regional gatherings and can also volunteer to help local politicians with their election campaigns and their specific initiatives.

To run for office yourself, become as familiar as possible with the issues that your community deems most important and urgent, become a presence at community board and town hall meetings, make plans for budgeting and staffing your campaign, find out how to file for office in your town and state, and prep for your candidacy announcement. Candidate Boot Camp offers a comprehensive how-to-run-for-office guide.

What skills do you need to be a politician?

Depending on your specific political interests, different skills may be required for particular roles. However, a few abilities have universal value in this career bracket. A few notable examples include the ability to orate effectively, fundraising talents, a keen sense of your desired audience and how to reach them, and (ideally) the capacity to listen to constituents and colleagues and to take their feedback into consideration when planning next steps.

While not every political role requires significant amounts of public speaking, politicians as a whole need to be comfortable addressing crowds and communicating their ideas and messages on a large scale. Most politicians employ speechwriters to help them express their plans as effectively as possible, and even on the local level, the life of a politician requires presentations, addresses, radio and TV appearances, and participation in print interviews. 

Fundraising counts among the most crucial and challenging aspects of political life, and if you dream of holding office, you must become acquainted with your options for funding your candidacy. Some independently-wealthy politicians (like Ross Perot, a third-party presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996) choose to fund their own campaigns, accepting only minute donations from supporters. However, the vast majority rely on cash infusions from individual donors, PACs (aka political action committees), and fundraising efforts organized by political parties. Successful candidates work closely with staffers to design a fundraising plan for their campaigns and seek to diversify their sources of revenue.

In order to gain public support for your candidacy, you need to consider the population you’ll be representing and the best way to get them on board with your political plans. Attending events sponsored by your political party provides a great opportunity to get to know your prospective base, what they consider most important, and how to frame your message in order to catch their attention.  Once you’re elected, this information will help you serve your constituents and fulfill your responsibilities.

How long does it take to become a politician?

The length of political careers — and the length of a political career launch — varies drastically depending on the candidate and on the circumstances surrounding the election. However, once you’ve decided to launch a political campaign, the entire process- from your first fundraising efforts to your candidate announcement to your first public appearances to Election Day- typically takes at least a year, and often longer for national races. For instance, Barack Obama first announced his candidacy for president in February 2007, with an election date set for November 2008, although Obama had been working with his own team to plan his campaign and begin his fundraising efforts for several months before he officially announced. 

How much does a politician make per year?

Like career durations, political salaries are nearly impossible to empirically define, as they depend heavily on the particular positions. However, a few examples of pay amounts for politicians can be found here:

  • Thanks to a salary-doubling Congressional decision in 2001, the President of the United States makes $400,000 annually.

  • Members of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate earn an average salary of $174,000 annually.

  • Governor salaries aren’t awarded equally, as different states pay their governors different amounts. Currently, the lowest governor salary in the US is $70,000 (for Maine governor Paul LePage), while the highest is $187,818 (for Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf).

  • Mayor salaries vary wildly depending on the size of the city. Mayors of major cities take home six figures annually, ranging from the Pittsburgh mayor’s $107,500 salary to New York City mayor Bill De Blasio’s $225,000 earnings. Mayors of small towns, however, can earn as little as $0.

  • Not all city councillors make a salary; for instance, some city council members in South Florida earn $0, although they’re often provided with perks like a car and phone allowance. Towns that do pay their councillors offer anywhere from $50,000 to over $180,000 annually.

What educational degrees are required to work in politics?

Technically speaking, no specific degrees are necessary for a career in politics. While a political-science major can help undergraduates better understand the nuances of political life, it’s far from a requirement for prospective candidates. That said, most politicians, particularly on the national stage, hold undergraduate degrees and, frequently, advanced degrees from prestigious universities. Here’s a sampling of the educational credentials of high-profile politicians:

Presidents

  • Donald Trump holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

  • Barack Obama holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University and J.D. degree from Harvard Law School.

  • George W. Bush holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University and an MBA degree from Harvard Business School.

  • Bill Clinton holds a bachelor’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University and a J.D. degree from Yale Law School.

Senators

  • New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand holds a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies from Dartmouth College and a J.D. degree from UCLA School of Law.

  • Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren holds a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and audiology from the University of Houston and a J.D. degree from Rutgers Law School.

  • California senator Kamala Harris holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics from Howard University and a J.D. degree from the University of California Hastings School of the Law. 

  • California senator Dianne Feinstein holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford University.

Representatives

  • House Minority Leader and California congresswoman Nancy Pelosi holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Trinity College.

  • Congresswoman (and now Senator-elect) Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona holds a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University, a Master of Social Work degree from Arizona State University, and a J.D. degree from Arizona State University College of Law, and a Ph.D in Justice Studies from Arizona State.

Resources for Aspiring Female Politicians

Campaigning for political office is an unquestionable challenge...but now more than ever, resources, guides, and support networks exist to help you bust through that glass ceiling. 

  • Get Her Elected seeks to help progressive female candidates win elections across the country. GHE provides marketing strategies, speechwriting services, public speaking and leadership coaching, accounting support, fundraising advice, social media and branding expertise, web design assistance, and much more. 

  • Like Get Her Elected, She Should Run offers aid and guidance to women considering political candidacies. They offer programs like the She Should Run Incubator, a series of online courses designed to help you with every step of your candidacy. 

  • Emily’s List specifically directs its campaign assistance at Democratic female candidates with pro-choice ideologies. Its Run to Win program gives political hopefuls in-person training seminars, online courses, and a thriving Facebook community of women eager to help.