Justice Now

B E E N  T H E R E:  J U S T I C E  N O W

Jeff Marx

Author of "How to Win a High School Election"

February 1999 
At age 17, Jeff Marx decided to run for Student Council Vice President. He'd never run for office before, but he figured "it's now or never." During that tough campaign he wished there was a book to tell him what to do to win votes. Now, at age 28, Jeff has created that book for anyone interested in becoming a candidate. He tells us how attitude is everything and that winning a high school election may be as simple as just being yourself.  

The InSite: Tell us about your student government experiences.

Jeff: Until I was junior in high school I was really never involved in student government at all...as a junior I thought it was too late to get started.

TI: Why did you even have the thought that you might want to make a change in the program as it was already playing, in your life?

Jeff: It seemed like the people who were the class presidents and student council officers were the same people who had the "leadership" bag. They didn't really seem like real people who wanted to do anything for the students, it seemed like they were doing it for their resumes!

TI: Sounds like being a professional politicians! So did you have some sort of idea that you could do the job differently?

Jeff: I thought that I could do it with passion.

TI: I'm always interested when people suddenly see something in a new light and view themselves as able to do something that they never thought they were able to do before. What happened that made this decision clear for you?

Jeff: I going to be starting my senior year and it came time to sign up for whoever wanted to run for elections and I thought "I can't do this because I have no experience and I'm not part of that group that runs for office." But then I thought, "this is my last chance!" If I don't just go for it now with whatever experience and credentials I have, when am I ever going to get them. When am I ever going to get a chance? It felt like I might as well take a shot. I really had no expectation of winning I just set my sites on "I'm going to try this." And that was the end goal.

I really had no expectation of winning I just set my sites on "I'm going to try this."

TI: That's really good advice for anyone who wants to attempt anything for the first time. "I'm going to try it!"

Jeff: You have to think about "What do I have to lose?" And I thought, "For every person that is elected, there's someone who isn't and it's not that they're branded forever as a "loser." Nobody really remembers and nobody really cares (if you lose.) And if there's something you want, only you know what it is, and you've just got to try it! Nothing ventured nothing gained.

TI: So what was your next step after you made this decision that you were going to run?

Jeff: I started thinking about what it was like to be in the shoes of someone who votes. I thought "when I'm filling out a ballot, who do I vote for?" It's not just the popular person, it's a normal person who is friendly and passionate and really wants to do something and I thought, "Don't worry so much about the posters and the hand-outs, let me just ask my friends to vote for me and go around and tell people that I'm really serious about this and I had new ideas to bring to the table."

TI: What office were you running for?

Jeff: Vice President of the student council.

TI: And what was your competition like?

Jeff: One was a popular cheerleader.

TI: (Laughing) Aren't all cheerleaders "popular"!

Jeff: She was also President of the Sophomore class! One was the current student council secretary.

TI: Who was obviously looking for a promotion!

Jeff: Exactly! And then there was me!

TI: Did you have a campaign manager?

Jeff: In my school you were really on your own.

TI: So this was a solo effort. So what was it like to go around just being honest and being yourself and asking people to vote for you and hoping that your ideas and your passion would speak for itself. How did that feel to you?

Jeff: I actually got caught in the middle of a scandal! And it was my damage control that really allowed me to talk to people.

TI: What happened?

Jeff: It thought that it's not enough just to be a nice person, I wanted to find something concrete that I could do for the school s that when I got up to give a speech against these two very qualified opponents I could say "I want to do this." So I looked around the school and thought, what in the world could a student do to improve this place for us, other than more "school spirit" and the same old things that everybody says. The school had instituted a rule against allowing pizza deliveries.

So I looked around the school and thought, what in the world could a student do to improve this place for us...

TI: Why did they make that rule?

Jeff: That's what I wanted to find out. So I went to the principal and said, "Why is this not allowed anymore?" He told me that a couple of years ago it had become a problem because people were leaving pizza boxes all over the place and we said, "That's enough of that. No more." And I said to him, "But that was years ago. Could we allow a trial period where we would allow pizzas on the condition that the school remained clean. If I were to get up in a campaign speech and say "I've talked to the principal and he's going to allow pizza deliveries again as long as we keep the campus clean." I asked if that were something he would let the students try again. It sounded reasonable to him and he said "Sure." So I announced to the school that I'm the kind of person who doesn't talk about "we're going to do this and that. I'm a person who actually goes out and does things. And I talked to the principal and asked if we could do this and it's already done, whether I'm elected or not, this is something that I've done and I hope it will serve as an example that I'm not into politics and promises I'm into actually doing things!"

TI: What a brilliant move! You get my vote! So you won the election, didn't you?

Jeff: Well, there's more to it, actually. The student council advisor didn't like the idea that someone without any experience and without any qualifications to speak of was conceivably going to win this election. So he went to the principal and said, "This isn't right. If anyone is going to sell pizzas it should be the student council student store, not the local pizza place." So he changed the principal's mind and they decided that pizza deliveries would not be allowed so they put announcements to this effect in the morning notice and they had posters in the cafeteria and even in the voting area saying that I had lied!

TI: Ooh, not good!

Jeff: No, it wasn't. And it was pretty devastating. I didn't lie. I had arranged it with the principal.

TI: Sounds like the principal had the backbone of a jelly fish.

Jeff: Apparently. Well it was his first year, so when some one came to him and said, "You can't do that." He said, "Okay, I guess we can't do it." Without regards to the fact that I had run on this platform saying this is something I did and the principal said we could do it, now they were telling the whole school that I had lied, that I didn't have permission and that my campaign promise would not come true.

TI: So what did you do?

Jeff: I had a choice. I could have dropped out of the election. I could have buried my head in the sand. I could have proclaimed that life is unfair and disappeared... but I decided to go around and talk to people. And they actually gave me a reason to get into conversations with people about real issues. Because everyone that I made myself available to said, "Hey, Jeff, what's going on?" I don't know how I knew to do this, but I took the time and the effort to talk to every single person who was interested and who would listen and I explained the whole story. The more people I talked to the more people saw that I was a guy who was trying to make a difference and this was the way the school worked. On a very grass roots level, I showed people I was genuine and wanted to do a good thing to the school.

...I took the time and effort to talk to every single person who was interested and who would listen...

TI: And on election day, what happened?

Jeff: I was as surprised as anyone to find out that I had beaten these two very well qualified candidates. They didn't publish the numbers of who got how many votes, but it's entirely possible that the other two candidates had more votes than me. It's possible that they each had 33 percent, and I had 34 percent. Which is just over a third. But I had more votes than either of them. I think a lot of people don't realize that you don't have to get all the votes. The more candidates their are to split the votes, the fewer votes you need to win!

TI: So what did this experience teach you?

Jeff: It taught me that you've gotta go after something, no matter what the odds are. If there's something you're interested in you've got to go try it. You could surprise yourself and it taught me that being an honest and sincere person who's friendly and giving is a lot more appealing than someone who is political and shakes hands and puts up babies and tries to do the mass marketing thing.

TI: When did you get the idea for your book "How to Win a High School Election"?

Jeff: When I was first deciding to run I thought wouldn't it be terrific if there was a manual for students, written by students which would say, "This is what I did that worked." "This is what I've seen that worked." "Here are some ideas you might want to steal."

TI: So you actually thought of this when you were a junior in high school?

Jeff: I did! I wished I had had a book like this. When I was trying to figure things out on my own, "How should I go about this?" I wished I had had advice from people who had been there - done that.

 I wished I had had advice from people who had been there - done that.

TI: It sure makes a lot of sense. But of course you didn't have that manual, and you did it on your own. And learned a lot of things, I'm sure, about what worked and didn't work. So when did you get the idea again, for the book?

Jeff: Well the idea stuck with me for years but I could never really bring myself to write it, because of this whole pizza thing. I thought "Maybe this was a really special situation and who am I to hold myself out as an expert. I only went through high school once and I don't really know better than anybody else. Maybe I just got lucky. But who am I to teach everyone how to do it?"

TI: But "teaching everyone how to do it" wasn't your plan. Your plan was to gather up the advice of other students who had been through the experience of a high school election and let them teach everyone how to do it!

Jeff: Yes! So... I got on America Online's membership directory and I ended up emailing 16,000 students with a very sincere plea that said, "You don't know me, but I'm writing this book and I would love any ideas you have for speeches, posters, campaign promises, anything you've seen that was funny, or mistakes you've seen people make. Ideas you think were valuable. Anything you would tell somebody who is running for election."

TI: How many responses did you get from your 16,000 emails?

Jeff: I got 1,000!

TI: That's very high!

Jeff: I was shocked. But it led me to believe that high school elections were something that a lot of people were interested in and that they had a lot of wonderful ideas about.

TI: Like what?

Jeff: The Number 1 thing I heard was "Don't be fake, just be yourself!" And these are the people who have either won elections or vote. And when you're running for election you don't get the chance for the people to tell you what they want. But here it is, in the book.

Don't be fake, just be yourself.

TI: What other "good ideas" did you hear a lot?

Jeff: Have the right attitude. Don't be condescending. Go out and talk to people and be genuine and be friendly. The typical student government type goes around and acts like they're doing everyone a big favor. And it seemed like the students were saying we'd rather vote for someone who is just one of us than for someone who thinks they're a teacher. Which of course, makes absolute sense. But when I was in high school I never thought in those terms.

TI: What other good ideas did the students write to you about?

Jeff: The second most important thing was "have a great speech." It seems like in high schools all across this country, funny speeches win elections.

TI: Does that mean that the speeches aren't about issues?

Jeff: No. The winning speeches are serious, but they're not too serious. The students feel that being a class officer isn't brain surgery. Being a good class officer doesn't take any great skills except desire to work for the class. So the students didn't want to elect someone who was going to take it too seriously, they'd rather vote for someone friendly. High school students want to be around someone who has the attitude of "this is high school. Let's have a great time!" So the categories in the book are: have the right attitude, have a great speech, talk to people and ask them to vote and get your name remembered.

TI: To have had the goal to write this book for 10 years, and to have finally done it is a wonderful accomplishment. I wonder if you could give some advice about achieving a goal.

Jeff: I've always believed you really can do anything you want to do. The only essential ingredient is desire. You can only be good at something you really care about. If you find something that your heart is in you will do it well. Everything great starts at a very ground level. Sesame Street was started with a frog. Disney was all started with a mouse. Apple Computer... Ford Motor Company was a guy tinkering in his garage. It's sort of the same thing as deciding to run for that election. You just have to try it and go for it!

I have always believed you really can do anything you want to do. You can only be good at something you really care about. Everything great starts at a very ground level. 
Find out more about Jeff's book,
"How to Win a High School Election"

Send email to Jeff at

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