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Why do people run for office?
Politics is a sirens song to some, a turnoff to others
Debra Harkrider ran for Gainesville City Council in 2011. The businesswoman unsuccessfully challenged longtime Councilman Robert “Bob” Hamrick, hoping to bring a “more progressive view” to the council. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

When he threw his hat into the ring to succeed James Mills in a special election last fall, Dominic Ottaviano said it was because he was “tired of all the crap.”

Ottaviano, in the home health care business, was a newcomer to politics as all candidates are at some point in their lives.

“I’m the one guy in this who has no idea what he’s doing,” Ottaviano said in his first conversation with The Times in early October 2011. “I think that’s a good thing.”

A month later, Ottaviano came in last in a seven-man race, trailing even the only Democrat running to represent a heavily Republican district.

Now Ottaviano said he has reconsidered his political aspirations. The task was hard and the system didn’t work the way he wanted it to.

“I’m not running again — are you kidding?” he asks, the question, rhetorical. “You should not want to do that.”

For various reasons, some people decide each election season to take their civic engagement to the level of an elected office. It’s an undertaking that consumes personal time and exposes one to public scrutiny.

An analysis of candidate motivations by political scientists at Loyola University Chicago and University Massachusetts Dartmouth determined in 2006 seven main reasons candidates sought elected office, including a need to deal with a certain issue or to fight for a certain group, a desire to further a personal ideology and a sense of obligation to serve.

Ottaviano wanted to fix what he felt was a broken system of state government.

Debra Harkrider, a businesswoman who felt vested in her city, wanted to steer Gainesville in a new direction.

Jimmy Norman just wanted the government to start working the way he believed it should.

Lewis Massey, the son of a lobbyist who had been around state politics his whole life, knew from a young age that he wanted to play his own role in the future of the state.


Driven by issues

For George Wangemann in 1986, there were multiple reasons to run. As an appointed member of the city school board, Wangemann said he’d also been interested in running and was encouraged by his father to seek an elected office.

At the time he ran, Wangemann said he was concerned with raw sewage flowing into Flat Creek. And, as a former resident of Utah where indoor smoking was banned, Wangemann had his sights set on something similar in the city limits.

“I’d say the biggest reason is I felt like I could make a difference for good,” Wangemann said. “I wanted to serve my community in some way.”

Wangemann beat an incumbent candidate that year and has served since. During his tenure, Gainesville became one of the first cities in the state to ban indoor smoking and the city’s Public Utilities Department has been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency for its efforts to clean up sewage issues in Flat Creek.

Wangemann goes door-to-door inviting residents to council meetings. Though few do show, Wangemann recently said = so far he has personally invited about 5,000 people to council meetings.


Looking for change

Like Wangemann, Harkrider wanted change, too.

Harkrider, a local businesswoman, challenged Robert “Bob” Hamrick last fall, hoping she could bring a “more progressive view” to the city council.

“The world is changing and we need to be one step ahead of that change,” she said. “I thought that, with my skills, that I could help the city do that.”

Though she was unsuccessful, Harkrider hasn’t ruled out another try, calling the run for City Council last year a positive learning experience. She sees herself as a “doer” and says elected office could be a good place for her.

Since her campaign ended in November, Harkrider said she’s been searching for ways to be involved so she can “be ready when the opportunity presents itself again.”

Norman, on the other hand, decided he isn’t a fan of campaigning. He ran for Georgia Senate District 49 in 2010.

The seat came open early that year when Lee Hawkins resigned to run for the U.S. House. In a pool of three candidates, Butch Miller won soundly without a runoff.

When he signed up for the race, Norman, a proponent of small government and a strict constitutionalist, wanted to see more people with his ideas in the General Assembly.

He sought the state-level office because of his feeling that the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reserves power not specified for the federal government for the states, is underapplied.

“We need to take charge of more stuff at the state level and tell the feds to fly a kite,” Norman said.

But after losing twice to Miller that year, Norman said he’s done with that chapter in his life. While he said he enjoyed meeting people, the semi-retired real estate investor said he wasn’t impressed with the way campaigns worked, noting that he didn’t feel voters in the Republican primary had considered the candidates’ ideology so much as affability.

“It’s a popularity contest,” Norman said. “And I am not good at popularity contests. I don’t like dressing up and talking about things that don’t matter and presenting a public image that people are drawn to.”

He isn’t, however, done being involved. Norman, executive director of Georgians for Constitutional Government, a group that meets each Tuesday at a local pizza restaurant.

While he won’t completely rule out running again, Norman said he’d rather find someone with his views to head a campaign.

“I’d prefer somebody else to do it, because it’s a miserable thing,” Norman said.


Demands of politics

Massey, on the other hand, enjoyed the campaign. But he said his wife wasn’t a fan of the demands of political life.

Massey suspended his political career in 1998 after two years as a statewide office holder.

Gov. Zell Miller appointed Massey as Secretary of State after Max Cleland resigned to run for U.S. Senate, and in 1996, he won an election to the post.

From that seat, Massey thought he’d have a chance to touch the lives of nearly every Georgian.

At first, Massey said he didn’t see the seat as a political building block.

“I think most people that run for office, do it for the right reasons, and I certainly hope I did it for the right reasons,” Massey said. “I felt like we did some good things and made a difference and improved the lives of some people in our state and hopefully laid the groundwork that enabled future successes beyond that.”

But when then Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard made clear he wouldn’t try to succeed Miller as governor, Massey started thinking and praying about seeking the seat.

He lost the 1998 Democratic primary to Roy Barnes, who later won the election.

Unlike Ottaviano and Norman, Massey said his experience strengthened his belief in the political system.

“My only regret is that more people don’t participate in it,” he said.