It is less than 100 days before election day. In 89 degree heat, I wear my suit jacket, adorned with a purple and green campaign button. I carry a clipboard and campaign cards as I walk with Aahil, a high school student and a volunteer. He holds a yard sign reading “Dr. Jain for County Commission District 13” as we walk down Quince Road, knocking on doors and meeting with voters.
The first few residents are not home, or intentionally do not open the door. Another is busy planting her spring garden and waves us away and at another house the dogs keep barking at us and no one opens the door. Running for local public office is not glamorous, with TV interviews, campaign rallies, and public speeches–rather it is simple door-to-door visits and cold calls, trying to connect with people. In all, it is a humbling experience.
Running for office also makes me change my frame of thinking. As a doctor I think in terms of serving individuals, one patient at a time, just as many others do in service industries who think about one client, one customer, or one project at a time.
But when one serves in public office, one needs to think about the entire population. I now think about what will be beneficial for the collective group of people who live in my district. It’s not an easy question. Our voting districts are often made up of a mosaic of races, religions, ethnicities, and values. Population thinking means reflecting the collective needs of the community, as many as 70,000 people, in a single vote.
This is a huge responsibility – and the humbling experience is good training. As I run for office, I spend my evenings and weekends, meeting as many people as I can to hear their concerns. On this day, as we walk to yet another house, we notice a middle-aged man putting out his garbage. We approach him and strike up a conversation. He tells me about his wife who is a nurse. The name sounds familiar. As she walks out to the driveway, I realize I worked with her over a decade ago.
So I hear her concerns for the county: lack of economic growth and bickering among the commissioners. I also hear her personal concerns. “I left work to take care of my 91-year-old mother,” she says. “My mother has dementia and I don’t want to put her in a nursing home.”
I empathize with her and then I share my bigger vision of how I hope to help the county. My goals are, I tell her: “efficiency in government, accountability for leaders and responsibility of citizens.”
She nods, and asks why as a doctor I am doing this.
I tell her “Many of our acute health problems begin further upstream, things like unavailability of healthy foods or safe places to walk.”
Before we move on, I ask her, “Can I count on your vote?”
“Of course,” she says.
As we walk to the next door, Aahil says “Wow, that made up for all the unopened doors.”
I agree with him. Every vote I can garner from these meetings makes me feel like it’s worth walking door to door in the heat. But even when I don’t secure a vote, I know it’s worth it. I’m hearing people’s stories, getting different perspectives, and hopefully learning their solutions to our collective problems—all of which, if I succeed, will make me a better commissioner.
(Dr. Manoj Jain is a physician and has written for the Shelby Sun time from 2003-2007 and then with the Commercial Appeal and Washington Post. He is now running for public office and chronicling his experience weekly. )