One of the newest elected officials in St. Louis, Missouri is 28-year-old Bill Stephens, who was recently elected to the city’s Board of Aldermen. He beat an incumbent by a vote of 1421 to 1331. It was close.
What makes his victory especially surprising is that Stephens was open about being gay and atheist during his campaign… in a ward that the Riverfront Times described as “reliably conservative and Catholic.”
How the hell did he pull off that victory?
His answer is excellent advice for other candidates who share similar traits:
Stephens kicked off his campaign by introducing himself as gay and atheist. Then he got down to the business of winning the election, a process during which his identity wasn’t much of a factor. He believes that an incredibly diverse range of identities accrue to the community when people come out. “That presents the beauty of our diversity, of course,” he says, “but it also presents the friction points. We’re united by our gay identity, but when so many other parts of our identity come into play, sometimes there’s friction.” Pride, he says, can be an occasion to set that friction aside and focus instead on the commonalities.
In other words, he decided he wasn’t going to be ashamed of his identity. He wasn’t going to hide it for political purposes. He just put it out there right up front. And that allowed his campaign to focus on issues that voters could get behind no matter their political leanings. (When Danica Roem, a trans woman, won her State House seat in Virginia in 2018, she also said her identity wasn’t a big factor for voters because her campaign centered on shared problems like “the frickin’ road over in my home town.”)
Just look at Stephens’ campaign website. It promotes compassion and empathy. He discusses his ideas for public safety, economic development, and good government. Stuff that everyone cares about. And those aren’t just talking points! Those are the reasons he’s running. And by making it clear right up front that he’s gay and atheist, he basically took those issues away from his opponent and critics so they couldn’t use them against him — which might have been easier if he tried to downplay or run away from them.
Even if that wasn’t a deliberate strategy, it’s the playbook I’ve seen from so many other open atheists who ended up winning their elections.
Now, even after his victory, with the number of aldermen possibly decreasing from 28 to 14 in the future, Stephens isn’t worried about his political future:
“As an atheist, I believe this is our one shot,” he says. “Let’s leave the world — and the city — a better place than we found it. I want the work I do in the next two years to benefit generations to come.”
You don’t need to be an atheist to think like that, but it’s incredibly powerful to hear an atheist — an elected atheist — say that without hesitation.
(Image via Facebook)