How to Run for Mayor

Shows like "The Mayor," "Smallville," "Mr. Mayor," and more feature regular citizens running for local or state office to enact change . . . or at least engage in some wacky hijinks. But participating in a mayoral election can be a great first step into politics — just ask successful candidates like John Tyler Hammons, who made history at age 19 when he was elected the youngest-ever mayor of Muskogee, Oklahoma.

What Are the Requirements to be Mayor?

Though the requirements vary by state and town, in almost all cases you must be at least 18 (though a handful of cities have no limit at all). Some age requirements can be set higher—anywhere from 19 to 30 and even above — so it's best to check local election codes before you begin to get too far ahead in planning your campaign.

Many local governments will have additional eligibility requirements, such as being a registered voter in the city or having been a resident of the town you're running in for a certain number of years. County and city clerks can assist you in locating further information about local eligibility requirements and election processes.

Step-by-Step Process to Become Mayor Overview

This is a general step-by-step path to becoming mayor, though every step of the process requires time and effort:

  1. First decide if a mayoral office is right for you, based on research of the responsibilities and requirements associated with the job. Ensure you are eligible according to local election codes
  2. Familiarize yourself with local politics, develop a platform and stance on important issues, and fundraise for your campaign
  3. Build up your campaign staff, figure out how many votes you need to win, and begin getting your message out to the local public. Determine how you're going to connect with your potential constituents.
  4. Contact your local county or city clerk to gather more information and formally enter the election
  5. Participate in any other pre-voting electoral events your local district may hold.
  6. Continue campaigning and advocating for yourself to voters. It's hard to be elected if no one knows your platform! Make sure that people will actually get out there to vote for you, and that they know how to register and participate in the election. The rules and methods for voting can vary, so be sure to make your supporters aware and prepare them to get out and get those votes in.

Note that steps 2-3 can be done while entering the election. You do not need to have every element of your campaign and platform figured out before you decide to run and enter the election.

Additionally, you may need to continue fundraising while simultaneously working on all of these steps. Financing a campaign for public office can be a long and hard process, but it definitely does not need to be done all at once.

Job Duties For Mayors

Beyond prior residence and voter registration, many more things are required of a mayor after they take office. Most local governments stipulate that a mayor must reside in their town of governance for the duration of their time in office.

Just because a mayoral office may seem "smaller" than a Senate or House seat does not mean it lacks the obligations and rules of those offices. From the beginning of your mayoral campaign through your tenure in office, you must comply with local, state, and federal election regulations and laws, and fulfill the duties of your position.

The responsibilities and duties of a mayor differ depending on the local power structure. Sometimes a mayor is simply a member of the local city council who may have limited powers not granted to other council members. This type of role is known as a council-weak mayor, in which the mayor's main duty is basically acting as the head of the city council.

Other times, the mayor's office will be set up in the format of a council-strong mayor. In these cases, the mayor often enjoys greater administrative powers, such as overseeing hiring of employees or being granted a veto vote for local council decisions. A council-strong mayor may also have legislative powers along with the city council.

The council-manager system and commission system are less common, but both draw comparisons to the council-weak mayor setup of mostly ceremonial duties. Regardless of the way political duties are allocated in your area, being a mayor is no easy job!

How Many Terms Can a Mayor Run For?

Holding office as mayor can be an incredibly rewarding job and a great way to serve your community. But is there a limit to how long a mayor can hold office for?

It depends. While cities like New York have a two-term mayoral limit, others—like Chicago or Baltimore—have no term limits for mayors. Because municipal election rules are largely left up to the discretion of those same localities, term limits are also often left up to the decisions of local governments.

Checking your local election code can help clarify the term limits for your town, but remember that mayoral and city council term limits may differ!

How Much Will Running for Mayor Cost?

Across the country, elections at all levels between federal and local have gotten vastly more expensive. Don't fret if you're not a billionaire yet, though. If you're not running for office in a major city like New York or Chicago, the costs associated with campaigning for office will likely be much more affordable.

Running for mayor in a large city often means that a candidate must raise millions of dollars in campaign funds. While it is hard to find any sort of exact sum for smaller cities— particularly because fundraising doesn't always line up with the number of votes garnered — the average costs of running for municipal office are usually proportional to the community's size, average income, and other local factors.

Campaign finance law is no joke, either. There are many legal limits on when and how money for electoral campaigns can be raised and spent. Make sure that you are always in compliance with local, state, and federal laws as you fundraise and disburse your electoral funds. If in doubt, speak to an attorney familiar with local campaign finance laws.

Why Do Candidates Have to Fundraise?

You don't have to fundraise in order to run for mayor. But elections are decided by votes. Voters are often influenced by the products of a candidate's fundraising.

TV spots, mail, and online advertisements are popular methods of advertising your candidacy, and each comes with various associated costs. Reaching potential constituents is an essential part of ensuring electoral success, though this can also be accomplished partly by volunteers conducting call and door-to-door information sessions with constituents and local residents.

Beyond the Basics: What Does it Take to Win?

Searching for campaigning tips and advice for getting endorsements? This may sound simple, but the best way to guarantee electoral success is by making yourself the best candidate— and making sure your (future) constituents know it!

This means:

Developing a platform and getting the message out

  • Research local issues and form your policies and opinions
  • Make sure your constituents know what you care about and why. If they share your passions, they will be more likely to vote for you

Participating in the community

  • People will be much more likely to vote for a candidate who has a history of community participation and engagement. Previous community engagement can also help you become a more effective mayor.
  • Attend local events, festivals, and more. Not only will you meet many future constituents and benefit from talking to them and hearing their stance on local issues, but this is also an easy and free way to also begin to advertise your candidacy

Advertise Your Candidacy

  • Look into TV spots, social media campaigns, appearances at local high-profile events, and other methods of increasing your public profile. People vote for what they know.

Get Involved With Local Politics

  • Attend town council meetings, local referendums, protests, and any other political events happening in the community.
  • Not only will this help you naturally build a platform and determine your stance on issues facing your constituents, but it will also demonstrate that you care about these issues
  • Many mayoral candidates have previously held other local offices or been participants in community politics prior to running for mayor. Taking the time to build up experience and make sure people know your name and platform can make a huge difference in electoral outcomes
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