Nicholas Kristof
Journalist Nicholas Kristof speaks during the Goalkeepers Conference, Wednesday, September 20, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Last week, the editor in chief of The New Republic, Win McCormack, wrote an article supporting a potential bid for governor of Oregon by the New York Times columnist Nick Kristof. The first four paragraphs of the piece are dedicated to making the case that, in McCormack’s words, “Nick never really left his hometown of Yamhill,” even though he departed that small town in Oregon after high school in the late 1970s and only returned in 2019.

McCormack lives with his partner, Carol Butler, a Democratic political strategist who has worked for current Oregon Governor Kate Brown and is now consulting with Kristof. So McCormack’s column is, arguably, the beginning of a campaign rollout—one designed to neutralize the most obvious critique of a Kristof bid: He’s a carpetbagger with no experience in government.

But that critique has a whole lot of truth. Yes, Kristof has long-standing ties to Oregon—a family farm that he has regularly visited throughout adulthood and now helps run, as well as nearby property that he bought nearly 30 years ago. But having ties is not the same as residing full-time, being routinely involved in the local community, and regularly engaging in state issues. He is undoubtedly an Oregonian, but it’s hard to argue that he’s the Oregonian best suited to run state government.

After Donald Trump’s shocking 2016 presidential victory, one can always sketch out a possible scenario in which a famous outsider wins an election by campaigning against the status quo and promising fresh ideas. But Andrew Yang’s train wreck of a New York City mayoral bid is more indicative of how such campaigns usually pan out.

Granted, Kristof shouldn’t decide whether to run based on his chances of winning. Just because you’re a long shot doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. However, Kristof should decide based on whether he’s the person best prepared for the job or—to put it slightly differently—whether he’s the best prepared he could possibly be for the job.

Yes, Kristof’s professional accomplishments are stunning. For 37 years, he has worked for The New York Times as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He has traveled to more than 150 countries, often shining a spotlight on—and seeking solutions to—poverty, genocide, military conflict, gender discrimination, criminal injustice, and child mortality. Two Pulitzer Prizes. Five best-selling books (all cowritten with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn). A reputation as “the moral conscience of our generation of journalists.” (Though perhaps Kristof won’t be putting that quote from Jeffrey Toobin on any campaign literature.)

Kristof has put an immense amount of thought into how to solve some of the world’s toughest problems. But thinking about and reporting on social problems is not the same as holding public office, balancing the demands of constituencies, and manipulating the levers of government.

There is a way for Kristof to gain that kind of experience. It’s called local government.

Kristof could seek elective office with his city council. His farm is reportedly “between Yamhill and Carlton.” Both cities have a “strong council” form of government, in which the mayor does not have veto power. He might be able to exert a fair amount of influence from a council seat, or consider running for mayor. Granted, both Yamhill and Carlton are tiny municipalities of fewer than 2,500 people, whereas Yamhill County has a population of about 100,000. So a more tempting post may be a seat on the Yamhill County Board of Commissioners, which oversees the county administrator.

If it proved hard to win an elected position, he could probably land an appointed position on one of several county committees, such as the Planning Commission, Housing Authority Board, or Budget Committee, which would have direct relevance to the issues of poverty and dignity that have long been in his interest.

Whether in elective or appointed office, serving the public at the city or county level would give Kristof invaluable hands-on experience in how the levers of government actually work, as well as how state and federal policies can help—or frustrate—local communities. He would be able to do good and also learn when good intent proves insufficient.

One prominent writer who is a huge believer in the power of local government is James Fallows, a former Washington Monthly editor and a longtime contributor. After several years of flying his own plane 100,000 miles across America, town by town, Fallows and his wife, Deborah, have been chronicling “the extent of locally based renewal and experimentation, directed at many of the same challenges that now seem practically hopeless from a national perspective.” Together they have produced a series of dispatches for The Atlantic, a book titled Our Towns,  an HBO documentary of the same name, and a nonprofit helping “now-disconnected innovators and reformers realize that they’re part of something larger.”

In a phone conversation, Fallows assured me that Kristof “will be great at whatever he does.” But he did agree that, for anybody considering public service, local government has a lot to offer. “You see the objects of your policy every day,” Fallows observed, which has a “leavening and maturing and improving effect on the way people [feel] about their towns, and the way the government work[s].” Another bonus is that “there’s probably a lower proportion of your time you have to spend raising money in most local offices.”

One particularly compelling insight Fallows picked up from his talks with mayors and councilors around the country is that “it’s often more possible to make really long-term changes at the local level and think they’ll stick, than in a lot of other offices, because there’s not the whipsawing back and forth in policy. You can get a park built and think it’s going to be there for another 100 years. You can change a trash-laden waterfall to becoming a public place and think that that will be there in the long run.”

To make a difference at any level of government, Kristof would have to develop a whole new set of skills, because these jobs are harder than they look. Back in May, Amanda Ripley wrote a fascinating article for Politico, telling the story of Gary Friedman of Muir Beach, California. Friedman had helped “invent the field of conflict mediation” and personally “helped more than 2,000 people work through all manner of unpleasantness.” So his neighbors thought he’d be perfect for Muir Beach’s Community Services District Board of Directors. He not only got elected but also became president of the board.

The board, which handles roads and water, had become a highly contentious body. Friedman and his supporters assumed that his deep experience in conflict resolution would defuse tensions. But, as Ripley explained, “one of the nation’s leading gurus of conflict management fell into the same traps he’d taught thousands of people to avoid.” Friedman himself admitted that faced with an “Old Guard” resistant to change, “I became defensive. I became aggressive.” He says he suffered a period of “personal derangement” and was humbled in the process: “I was never thrilled with the way politicians behave, but I do have much more appreciation now of how easy it is to get caught.”

Yet after the humiliation of being ousted from the board’s presidency, he remained on the board and finally figured out how to transcend the political divides that had made local governing dysfunctional. “In the end,” Ripley wrote, “Friedman did help to heal politics in his town. The road got repaired. The water rate got raised. The tone of the meetings improved.”

Learning lessons from suffering setbacks may be easier at the local level, where the spotlight is far less hot than it would be in the governor’s mansion. But if Kristof won municipal office, he might consider keeping his New York Times column, if the paper allowed it, and using it to popularize participation in local government—because local government could use some popularization. And there’s Substack, of course, if the paper couldn’t countenance both.

Many local offices are begging for candidates to fill them. A 2017 study from the Center for Local Elections in American Politics, reviewing 16 years of mayoral races in six states, found that “about half of all mayoral elections feature only one candidate,” and the number is higher in small towns, “where 79 percent of contests are uncontested.” Moreover, “since 2000, unopposed elections are on the rise. By 2016, on average, 60 percent of mayoral contests . . . featured only one candidate.”

Presumably, the numbers on local legislative races aren’t any better and aren’t poised to get any better. Serving in municipal office has always been a notoriously thankless task. Now, school board and city council public comment sessions are increasingly becoming culture war battlegrounds. In all likelihood, fewer thoughtful citizens will voluntarily choose to get yelled at in their spare time.

Kristof is uniquely positioned to change those perceptions. He could regularly share with readers worldwide the challenges and rewards of local government service. And as we got to vicariously travel with him on his political journey, perhaps along the way we would be inspired to follow his lead.

Finally, if Kristof did run for local office, he might discover that he doesn’t want to run for anything else. Fallows shared with me an anecdote about the former mayor of Duluth, Minnesota, Don Ness, who had been encouraged to run for Congress. When Fallows asked him his reaction to being courted, Ness said, “Higher office? Are you kidding? This is where I can make a difference.”

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.