How to Run for Congress

You've considered it. The way things are right now, just about everyone has. But what does it actually take to run?

Wendy Carrillo is thirty-six years old. She came to America an undocumented immigrant. She's never ran for any public office, up until a few months ago she made a living as a journalist. Now, she's polling second in a tight race for United States Congress. And people say America isn't still the land of opportunity!


In December, Carrillo announced her candidacy via Medium. Her campaign is focusing on digital presence and ground game, elements it hopes will appeal to younger voters in the 34th, home of zeitgeisty LA hoods like Downtown, Boyle Heights and Koreatown. It's also the district she grew up in.

Politics in 2016 rollicked many people like they've never been rollicked before. People who in other eras would've never gotten so political. You might not like the reasons for it, but its indisputable that we're entering an exciting political time, one where outsiders will flood both Washington and local state houses in unprecedented fashion. Wendy is just the beginning of a very big trend. 

Wendy is not, however, a total outsider. Her candidacy was sparked by her friend Alida Garcia, a Deputy Director of Obama's 2012 re-election campaign and a current director at Mark Zuckerberg's lobbying group She's a little bit blessed, though nowhere near as blessed as her opponent Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez. Still, Wendy isn't a traditional establishment candidate. In fact, she hasn't taken a dime from anyone besides individuals, no money from PACs or special interests, which is usually how hugely expensive congressional campaigns get off the ground.

We were curious about what it takes for an ordinary human like Carrillo to run for such a big office. If she can do it, why can't you?

Describe the moment you decided to run for office.

I had just left Standing Rock and I was literally staring at the faces of the presidents at Mount Rushmore. There was this Facebook calling, of all my friends wanting me to run for this seat. A friend of mine, her name is Alida Garcia, called and asked if I would seriously consider running for the specific district where I live, where I grew up. I made the decision then and there.

What was the first unexpectedly difficult thing you had to deal with?

Signing a compliance officer is the most important part. You don't want to get anything wrong and end up in jail.

How would that happen?

Well, little things, like ensuring that checks aren't made to you directly.

Ah, that would be a violation federal campaign law.


High stakes. Did it seem like an insurmountable mountain of stuff to figure out?

You know, I think that we’re all very politically savvy people, but it is a lot. Whose office space or home do we use? Do we need a PO box? Who is the treasurer and what are their responsibilities? Can that change later? Can we change an address? When you don't have all those things in place, it just becomes a little bit more time consuming and challenging. Then all that information is public. So, if you put your own address, then your address is available for the public to see.

Were you doing all this by yourself then?

No no. This is again where friends come in. It took me two-and-a-half days to drive home. In that time, friends were already making calls.

Who was the first person you hired?

The first person we actually cut a check to was our compliance person.

Did you have a campaign manager in mind? Or were you essentially acting as your own campaign manager?

No no no. You can't run for congress and run your own campaign. I have a campaign manager, a deputy campaign manager, a field director, a deputy field organizer, a volunteer coordinator, a finance manager, a deputy finance manager as well as a finance consulting team out of DC. In addition to a media consulting company and a mail consultant. It just keeps growing. You end up running a little mini enterprise when you're running for office, and it all costs money.

How did you choose a campaign manager?

I think for me it's somebody who shares my values. We’re running a really grassroots operation, a  people-powered campaign, focused on a really strong field program and a really strong digital program. This is an untraditional race. Normally you spend over a year campaigning to run for congress. This is a four-month sprint.

How did you even find him though? Is there like a LinkedIn for campaign managers?

Again, it's your network. Your friends.

How much money do you need to run for congress? Like minimum.

Well, I wouldn't put it like a minimum or a maximum. I would put in terms of what your plan is. This is where people vary in their approach. If you are planning to do a lot of mail, it gets incredibly expensive. If you plan on doing a lot of paid media, that's expensive. But, at the end of the day, no matter how many glossy mailers you have or how many commercials you have, if you don't have the votes, then it doesn't matter. We’re anticipating this will be one of the lowest voter turnouts ever. Though there's over 300,000 plus voters in the district, the number of people voting could be anywhere between 40,000 and 50,000. Then there will be a run off. The decision could be made by as few as 10,000 or 12,000 votes.

That's absolutely insane to me. For a seat on US congress, 10,000 votes! That it's that few. That's so crazy.

Yeah. Voter apathy no joke. We’re hoping to change that by engaging the people of this community. This moment calls for it.

Money-wise though, are we talking about like 10 grand? Or do you need more like 100 grand?

You need more than $100,000. You can't run with $10,000. You pay for everything. You pay for the voter data, you pay for the program that runs the voter data, you pay for the email program. Nothing is free.

So you need a lot of money. You need a cache of six figures or more.

At least. That's why it's really hard for everyday people to do this. It’s really challenging. That's the whole thing about getting money out of politics. The City of Los Angeles has a matching funds program, but that’s only on the local level; so if you're able to raise X amount by a certain date, then the city will match you, which makes it easy for folks to be able to run for office in city elections. But in a congressional race, there are no matching funds. It's hard to get your neighbors to give you money to run for congress. It's easier to go to PACs and special interests.

Did you go to special interests? If not, how did you raise enough in that short amount of time?

I have no money from special interests. But, when people believe in you, it happens. People can max out at $2,700 dollars. I have maybe five people that have maxed out for me and maybe another five that have given me like a thousand dollars. Everything else is less, 500, 250, 100, you know, $27 donations. $34. We started a program called $34 for the 34th district.

If we're talking about such a low voter turnout, how can those numbers possibly add up to six enough?

Well, money comes in from all across the country.

Oh of course, because it’s a national election. Who do you call for money?

It’s a total brain dump of everybody you've ever met. You do something called “call time.”

What's call time?

Call time is you sitting at your desk with a friend or someone that you trust and calling everyone you’ve ever met for five hours a day.

What do you say?

"Hey, we met at a bar in 2012. Do you remember? You bought me a margarita and now I'm running for Congress."

That’s hilarious. So what are your odds? I know there's at least two other people running….

There's actually 23 other people running and I'm currently second according to a poll. This is unprecedented. There's never been any congressional race in the City of LA with 23 candidates. As we head up to the 2018 midterms, I think we’re going to see more and more people that are not establishment running. People following the words of President Obama who in his last speech said, "If you are disappointed at our government and our elected officials, then you should pick up a clipboard, grab some signatures, and run for office." The Democratic party needs to figure out a way to address that because it's a beautiful thing. We've had too many “career politicians,” which is why we're in this mess to begin with, which is why somebody like Trump got elected. I hope that more everyday Americans can bring new innovative ideas and energy to a party that clearly needs it.

I think basically everyone in America agrees with you there! By the way, I used to live in your district. I’m pissed that I don’t anymore otherwise I’d vote for you in April!

Well, you don't need to be in the district to help me out. You can go to and make a donation.

That's right! That's right. I will. I'll do that.

Bam! You see how that works?