This season on NBC’s This Is Us, Sterling K. Brown’s Randall Pearson decided to do what many Americans have done in the past two years: run for public office. Upset with the way long-term city councilman Sol Brown (Rob Morgan) is handling things, Randall decides to campaign for the seat.
“We wanted something that felt like a natural extension of this man’s quest to do good in the world, but we also wanted to do something that was a little bigger in scale [than past seasons] and [that] tapped into some of his grander ambitions to live this great big life,” says This is Us co-showrunner and executive producer, Isaac Aptaker. It doesn’t hurt, Aptaker says, that “we’re all convinced Sterling would be an amazing politician, so the idea of getting to write those campaign and debate scenes for him was pretty irresistible.” (This vision, um, isn’t just shared among the show’s writers … )
Of course, because Randall is Jack Pearson’s son and comes with a similarly startling amount of confidence and persuasive charm to balance out his lack of foresight, he’s not going in with the best plan. For starters, Randall and his family live in New Jersey — specifically, Bergen County in northern New Jersey. However, Randall isn’t running there; instead he’s hoping to represent an underserved area of Philadelphia. He has sentimental ties to the area: His late biological father, William, (Ron Cephas Jones) lived in an apartment there and Randall recently bought that building.
While this is heartwarming, there are geographical limitations that would prevent Randall from being a presence in the Philadelphia community he wants to represent. But the most obvious issue is whether he’s even legally able to run.
“Under the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, you have to have lived in the district for over a year before the November general election,” says Adam Bonin, a campaign finance and elections attorney based in the City of Brotherly Love. With the potential workaround, Aptaker says, “Randall is using the building he owns, and William’s apartment which he was paying rent on, to establish residency.”
But even though Randall told his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) that he wanted to buy the apartment building last season and announced his candidacy intentions this October, he and his family still very much live in a different state. Bonin says this is a problem because the law is defined “not as where you plant a flag for convenience, but the fixed point to which you always plan to return” and that “there is a statute that says if you’re married, where your spouse lives is presumptively where you live.” (Bonin once represented a Pennsylvania Legislature candidate who was thrown off a ballot because it was ruled the toilet was flushed too few times in his claimed residence for him to have actually lived there.)
This and other issues, such as the tweaked timing of the city’s election cycle — in real life, primary elections happen in May and new candidates start their campaigns by gathering signatures of registered voters in the early winter of that year — have peeved Philly politicos. But there are other problems with Randall’s campaign that are frustrating to them and to their colleagues in other states. We asked for some specifics on what Randall has done wrong (and right!) in his quest to serve the good people of Philadelphia’s fictional 12th district.
1. Don’t go to a church — particularly one where your opponent is a regular — to drum up support without some research and a game plan.
Randall thought his fresh face and charisma would win him at least an entry into Sol’s voting base when he appeared at his rival’s place of worship earlier this season. Big mistake. Huge.
Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based PR manager and issues specialist who is known in the city’s political community, says that Philly certainly has African-American churches that served as a launching ground for “a lot of elected officials,” but that isn’t as much the case lately.
Christian Hanley, a Democratic strategist based in Baltimore, says that the smart move would have been to have “someone who was a member of the church invite him as a guest and introduce him to the pastor and the congregation and not just show up because it’s Sunday. You do that groundwork beforehand.”
2. Know all the communities you intend to represent, not just your own.
Thanks to the help of his famous actor brother Kevin (Justin Hartley), Randall stumbles upon the district’s untapped voting market of Korean immigrants and Korean-Americans — something his eventual campaign manager, Jae-Won (Tim Jo) is quick to assess.
“We also did quite a bit of research to determine the racial and socio-economic makeup of the West Philadelphia we portray on the show,” Aptaker says. “And Randall’s campaign platform was born out of some of the very real issues facing this district.” Aptaker says they based their research of Philly’s actual fifth district and in an effort to “accurately reflect the look and feel of the actual community,” they cast extras and day players who looked like those locals and shot some scenes in the city.
Bonin, the elections attorney, says this information isn’t always easy for council members to find online “because of how carefully drawn the districts are.” However, that doesn’t mean Randall couldn’t regularly drive or walk through the district to see its people in action.
3. Rely on your famous brother all you want, but don’t expect him to get you elected.
Patrick Henning, who is currently director of California’s employment development department but who has worked on everything from presidential to local election campaigns, says it’s great that Kevin helped Randall get some name recognition when he struck out at the church. But while Henning says that “name identification is the most expensive and the most important thing in terms of winning an election,” the benefits of “Hollywood stardom” via Kevin’s campaigning “wouldn’t be enough to sway a vote.”
4. Photo ops are important. Don’t squander them.
Speaking of Jae-Won: Listen to the man, Pearsons! Hanley says that the family’s decision in the Thanksgiving episode not to piggyback on Sol’s turkey-gifting extravaganza at a church that was loaded with press and skip out on their own chance for coverage at their event after Jae-Won begged a press contact to come, no less, might have made him quit the campaign.
“Had they gone to the church as the campaign manager had planned, they would not have only met voters and non-voters there, but through the press they would have been able to communicate to voters who would have been able to learn about them through the next day’s newspaper or that evening’s newscast,” Hanley says, adding that leaving early from their own event “potentially cost that poor campaign manager a connection.”
5. Don’t hire your wife as your field director. Especially if she has no experience.
Hanley says the field director is in charge of the “tedious stuff like figuring out the lay of the land, dividing up the territory among field workers and the volunteers underneath them, and they handle every aspect of making sure that campaign staff of volunteers gets out and knocks on doors and makes phone calls and covers the district on that granular level.” They don’t, unlike Beth and her hundreds of ideas, “handle events like fundraisers and external communication.”
“The reality is that when someone runs for office, it affects the whole family and is a choice they have hopefully made together,” says Allie McRaith, a campaign manager in Chicago. She says spouses and kids normally appear in the occasional photo op, “but the choice to make her staff is probably an awful choice in real life — for their relationship and the rest of the staff.”
Henning says the whole thing is “very, very problematic” when you take into account stories like the scandal surrounding Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who was indicted for improperly spending his campaign money. “Campaign funds have to be used for a campaign,” Henning stresses. “Let’s say you get pizzas for the campaign. Are you just eating with your wife? It becomes very hard to discern those things … They’re always going to be an advisor to you. But why would you go out of your way to give her a check?”
6. Know where to draw the line between your family and your campaign.
Incumbent Sol made quite the to-do when Randall showed up at his church without his wife and daughters in tow. In real life, something like that is to be expected, Hanley says, because “there’s so many events that you literally cannot attend all of them as a candidate, never mind people in the family.” Still, he adds, “It would have been advisable to bring them to something so family-oriented as a church service.”
Bonin says that “some people really do try to shield their families from the effect of campaigning,” but even that could be a big problem for Randall. “If anything, though, it highlights the residency issue,” he reminds.
7. Be realistic about the limitations of the job …
This is Us’ Aptaker says that Randall is running because he “realized there were a variety of issues he wanted to address that were well beyond the scope of a landlord. Issues that were more about public safety and city services: about what happens outside the walls of his apartment building but directly impact his residents and their daily quality of life.”
But if he wins, Randall shouldn’t plan a rosy path ahead after the election. Ceisler offers this deflating comment: “City council members in Philadelphia can suggest things to get done or they can make a call to expedite things getting done.” But a theoretical mayor of the district like he’s seen in opponent Sol? “That is not really accurate as to how things work here.”
8. But keep your heart in the right place.
“I’d vote for Randall for a number of reasons: Because he’s in it for the right reasons, he’s smart, and he grew up in Pittsburgh and so did I … I’d even maybe contribute money to him,” admits Ceisler, who says Philadelphia (and the rest of the country) could use a little less corruption.
Perhaps the events from the soup kitchen debacle will allow Randall some time for self-reflection. As Henning puts it: “If what he’s going for is to be the best family person possible — which is admirable — then he should focus and do that. If he’s going to run for office, you have to run, you have to campaign, and you have to be out there. Otherwise, you’re just going to lose and it’s not worth your time and it’s a waste of everybody’s effort and money.”