St. Paul, Minn. — Charlene Briner says she's not a typical politician. She's a stay-at-home mom with three sons who are seven, 10 and 14. She got involved in a campaign to raise money for her school district, and became so concerned about education funding that she decided to run for the state Senate.
Briner took on a 14-year incumbent -- and lost. In the process, she says she learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of campaigning.
"It's so funny; I was talking to somebody, and I said 'running for office is everything your mother told you not to do. You have to wear your good clothes when you know you're going to get dirty, and you have to ask strangers for money, and you have to tell people how great you are - and that's a hard thing to do,'" she says.
Briner says campaigning door-to-door proved to be both fun and humiliating. She had doors slammed in her face in this Republican-leaning district when people found out she was a Democrat. Her most bizarre encounter was with a homeowner who Briner suspects had been drinking before she knocked on his door.
"And I told him who I was and he goes, 'hang on a minute.' And he comes back and he goes, 'I just had to pick up the dog' - I won't say the word he used - hang on, and he stuck out his hand, but he had some on his hand. So now the question is, do you shake hands like the politician that you are, or do you withdraw and run as fast as you can?"
Briner says getting her hands dirty wasn't the worst part. She says she hated having to raise money. Briner says she spent up to 10 hours a week calling contributors or holding fundraisers in supporters' homes. In the end, she raised less than $30,000; that's about half of what her opponent raised.
I guess what I learned is people do really go along those party lines, and there's just no sense in it.
"It puts this pressure on a candidate. It doesn't free you to talk about the things that are really important because you have to spend that energy. I do think a public system of financing would change the process and would allow people to really focus on issues and it would allow you the freedom not to make promises to special interests," she says.
More than 200 people volunteered to help with Briner's campaign; many of them were friends and people she'd met through the school district campaign. One of her neighbors, Michele Snare, helped distribute campaign literature, and Snare's children walked in a parade with Briner. Snare says she had never worked on a campaign before, and found Briner's unsuccessful run for office disheartening.
"I guess what I learned is people do really go along those party lines, and there's just no sense in it. I mean, it blurs their vision so that they can't even see what they're doing when they stick to those party lines," Snare says.
For Briner's part, she says she's not cynical about the process, and she doesn't feel bad about losing. She says she hopes more people like her will decide to run for office.
"I'm basically a stay-at-home mom who had things to say about education and transportation and safe communities. The more people that run, maybe the less cynicism people will have toward the entire process," Briner says.
Political leaders who recruit candidates say Briner is the type of person they look for; she's a likeable person who is involved in her community and knows people outside of the political world.
Duane Benson, a former Republican Senate minority leader in the Minnesota Legislature, who has recruited dozens of candidates, says he often downplayed the demands of the job.
"You recruit people to run for jobs that pay $31,000 or whatever they pay -- not much -- under the guise it's a part-time job, and it's like it's going to replace that woodworking you do in the basement or something, and it's not true. This is really a time-demand as a candidate, and then it gets worse once they're elected," Benson says.
Benson says he often appealed to a sense of civic responsibility when trying to persuade people to run for the Legislature. He remembers what former Minnesota Gov. Al Quie told him when Benson first ran for office in 1980.
"You know, this is an honorable calling. And it is."
Benson says politicians will always be the brunt of jokes. Still, he thinks there will always be people willing to put in 20-hour days in the interests of public service.