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ViewPoint: The Game

Anytime two human beings get together, there is politics. Real politics can be a real nasty game that brings out the uglier side of human kind. Yet there are elements of The Game where there is joy.

My wife, Suzanne Lee Chan, ran for political office as a first-time candidate for the City Council of Fremont, Calif.—the fourth largest city in the San Francisco Bay Area: population 210,000. She is the practice administrator for my pediatric dental office, but the other hat she wears is that of a "connector" in our community. Sue has a long history of work with nonprofit organizations, which led to a post as vice chair of our city's 50th anniversary celebration. Her involvement led to an appointment to the city planning commission, where several leaders encouraged her to run for the city council. She could make a sustained impact on the community.

Launching a campaign should be simple. You sing the praises of your candidate to the masses, and the best-qualified man or woman should win. Yet, the greater question is, "For all the resources and heart you are about to expend, does your candidate have what the electorate wants?"

The local political machine wanted another candidate to prevail. They had resources and savvy; we were neophytes. In a brief four-month span, we had to prepare and package a product (our candidate), create a distribution system, penetrate the market and secure the market share. We had no experience in running a campaign, no volunteer organization and no money. It's a $100,000 campaign. We were always running out of time.

Then there's the opponent. You really never understand the pain inflicted on someone until you become the object of candidate-bashing and negative campaigning. It gets personal. The Machine had experience with these tools and used them. Competition brings out the best and the worst in people. For some, it's not the trophy; it's the hunt. For some, the pursuit is an intoxicant. For some, there is no honor or civility in that pursuit.

Learning the art of the campaign is learning the art of war. Eventually, we would come to learn more important lessons.

On the campaign trail, the principles of social networking connected us with the electorate. Some connections were five years old, some were 25. They still existed. We reminisced with parents of our kids' finest moments on the soccer field. We reconnected with the broad swath of businesses and donors from years of working on the annual hospital fundraiser. We reveled with many who shared long nights and sweaty days on festivals around town.

Phone banking was another tool. Akin to telemarketing, we secured voter lists and sang the praises of our candidate to targeted segments of the electorate based on voter profiles. What we discovered was fascinating.

Over 27 years in a pediatric dental office, we have seen as many as 35-50 kids in a day. We watched a lot of babies grow up in the community. Many on the voter registry were the parents of my patients, and many of our former patients were now voting age. We've gone through a lot of life together. When I worked the phone bank, people asked me, "Dr. Chan, how did you find me?," I couldn't resist but retort, "Your mom said to check up on you!"

When The Machine did its phone banking, our moms, dads and now grown-up kids expected to hear how good the other candidate was. We'd hear over and over again about how the families of our patients stood up for our candidate. After 27 years, our network of patients and parents was broad. They became our loyal connectors in the community.

We also used district walking to introduce our candidate to the electorate. Walking from neighborhood to neighborhood, our candidate was now a real person. The voter became connected. We saw some familiar faces, too. The dialogue began in another venue as doctor to patient; now it was among neighbors. It was about relationships. "How did you find out where we live?," some would ask. We quipped, "House call!"

In addition, being on staff at local hospitals, we developed relationships with physicians, nurses and staff. We groom informal relationships with pediatricians over many years. Their practices also touch many lives. During the campaign, the social networking among our colleagues was a powerful tool. They close ranks. We were grateful.

Until election night, we had no idea how we would fare. There were 10 candidates in this race. The specter of The Machine loomed. In prior city elections, the spread of votes between non-incumbents had been about 500 votes. Voices that supported you boosted you. Voices that undermined you instilled chilling doubt. The polls closed. The wait was excruciating.

In the wee hours of the night, our faith in the wisdom of the electorate was affirmed. Sue prevailed against the next non-incumbent by 6,777 votes. The Machine's candidate came in fourth place with a vote spread of 7,769 votes.

There was lots of bad stuff on the campaign trail, but plenty of good stuff, too. Through the rough times, we asked ourselves: Did we want it that bad? There was a lot of introspection.

Our spirits were bolstered by parents or patients who once called me—or still call me—their dentist. Every morning we don our gloves and gowns and work through our daily schedules. I've had a unique opportunity to understand the effect of those relationships outside the dental office, and I've come to appreciate how many lives we touch in our professional careers.

A pediatric dentist from Fremont, Calif., Dr. Chan identifies himself as "a proud member of the American Dental Association."