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With the sweeping change in U.S. politics has come an exponential rise in participation from everyday citizens (myself included)—whether we’re simply learning more about local elections, contacting our representatives, or even running for office. But with more and more willing candidates joining the fray than ever before, how can we stay informed as voters? How do we distinguish local candidates campaigning on similar platforms under the same party banner?

Photo credit: Sharis Delgadillo / Maria Cabildo for Congress

In advance of the special election to fill former Rep. Xavier Becerra’s seat in Congress on April 4, we gathered our local 34th district candidates at NationBuilder HQ last Tuesday evening so constituents could come learn about them in person (and not just on pre-election cheat sheets). Candidates came to chat with constituents in small group discussions and answer questions directly from the citizens they hope to represent, a human-to-human interaction most voters don’t get to participate in before they head to the polls in a Congressional election. And, in a cycle with an unusually crowded ballot of 23 candidates—some them running for the first time—this was a unique opportunity to get a sense of how they think, relate, and communicate, regardless of what’s on their resumes.

Rather than evangelize their platforms, we simply asked candidates to show up, be ready to listen, and engage in authentic conversation. After a brief mixer and introduction, constituents split into groups of 6-8 for 10-minute talks with pairs of candidates who made their way, group by group, around our office. Constituents asked any questions they could fit into the time allotted, and each candidate had a chance (albeit brief) to answer. To be honest, this was the first time we’d tried this discussion format, and, like the candidates, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect.

Photo credit: Sharis Delgadillo / Maria Cabildo for Congress

Just over half of the 23 official candidates on the ballot joined us—some in suits, some in t-shirts, some with staffers or family in tow, all ready to listen. In the absence of the prompters, cameras, and mediation we associate with politicking, something special happened. When constituents asked about what was on their minds, candidates couldn’t help but talk like the whole people that they are and participants couldn’t help but listen. As one attendee noted, it was a reminder to members of the community that our elected representatives are here to work for us, and it benefits everyone when we make our voices heard.

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