I got the call. A friend was fed up with the “crazy left wing idiot” and decided to run for local office. My friend was incensed that the person who was currently sitting in the elected seat was getting older and not quite as engaged in the system they were overseeing as they used to be. I got the call because I’m the computer guy and friends always call me when they need IT related stuff. Normally I get the call when the computers break down or when household networks get set up. Apparently I also get the call when someone wants to run for political office and needs a website and social media presence. So we were sitting at dinner and my friend brought up a new issue. Apparently there was another like minded individual running for office with the same goal of removing the problem incumbent. Of course if you have two challengers then they split the vote and the incumbent walks away with the election. I got caught up in a strategy conversation on how to deal with the other challenger. It was at that point that I got some serious flashbacks to my early childhood.
When I was a small child I was on the sidelines of the same type of local political efforts. My Dad, a marketing executive in his day job, was my Aunt Mary’s campaign manager every time she ran for a seat on the town’s city council. His claim to fame was making her brochures. Brochures were big back then as there was no social media. Radio and television ads were too expensive for targeting a single towns electorate so brochures sent to neighborhood homes and door to door campaigning was how local candidates got the word out. I remember his creations to this day. They were always a trifold. This design was used so the brochures could fit in a standard envelope. Each page included a photo and bullet points for describing the various topics in the campaign. I guess I remember them because I was in all of them. Dad would always use me when he needed photos of my aunt with children. Children, or more specifically supporting town parks and other kid related infrastructure was always a big candidate issue in a town election.
Looking back on it now, beyond family commitments, Dad’s efforts were part of a quid pro quo. My dad was always named to the zoning board. Most likely because my Aunt named him as her appointment. He liked the zoning board. It wasn’t in the spotlight. It’s very light duty politics but with pretty significant impact. The zoning board decides what goes where in a town via what areas are in what zone i.e. commercial, residential, industrial, etc. They also get to decide what exceptions are given when someone wants to have something in an area it’s not zoned for. It would be great if he was still around to ask why he wanted to take part in the community system via that position. I can only assume he enjoyed the sense of accomplishment and community service. Dad was also shrewd. My guess is that he was also aware that it looked good on his resume and maybe even helped a little with his upward mobility at his company.
Thinking back on the whole thing, I don’t remember political vitriol when I was a kid. My aunt’s entire exercise of running for election and working on the town council felt more like “somebody has to do it” and my aunt was being a nice person by taking on the job. I remember standing on the road in front of a Publix supermarket with her during one of her campaigns for reelection. We were holding up her campaign signs and waving. I asked her why we didn’t go to the front doors of Publix and meet people as they entered the store. She said, “we don’t want to be annoying, we just want people to see us.” I can’t imagine a politician saying that today, local or otherwise. Today’s politics are simply different. Siloing and political adamancy make even local politics a less than pleasant environment. Maybe it was always like this, but, like I said, I don’t remember it being bad on the local side. That being said, I was a kid and like most kids I didn’t pay too much attention. I can say I don’t recall my aunt having any negative experiences like political enemies gunning for her. You may not understand everything, but as a kid, you do pick up on the themes of what’s going on around you. In today’s world a big negative of being part of the local political system through an elected office is that you make enemies, often lots of them. So today, unless you want to manage plenty of negativity aimed at you, then taking part in the system through a front line elected office is not a good option.
So if you don’t want to deal with vitriol, yet, you still want to take part in ‘the system’ i.e. your communities’ social and political systems, to the point where you are having a big impact, how could you do it? The opposite to roles that create enemies are the community roles where you make friends. I think running for the town council used to be one of those roles. You would do the work that nobody else wanted to do and everyone appreciated you for it. That’s why many elected officials ran unopposed. But I don’t think that’s the case for elected officials any more. Consequently you have to find roles that meet that criteria. They are the ones where there is a ton of work involved, and few, if any, want to do it. Usually this looks like volunteering to become the head of the community little league or maybe leading a local non-profit. Aside from the occasional crazy parent or the oddball personality, most folks appreciate what you are doing and some will even want to help here and there. I have some experience with this. I’m on a board for a large local non-profit of some renown in my community. I’ve even led the board in the past.
Another option is to walk in my fathers footsteps and target an appointed position via working with elected officials. For those who have these types of positions, even if you don’t run for office, you still have strong connections to the population of important community contacts, i.e. the movers and shakers in a community. This population includes the elected political actors, the heads of different municipal departments, and the leaders in the communities private sector. Engaging in this network means you have influence beyond your appointed positions. Unfortunately today some of the caustic political dialog is even spilling into these positions.
You don’t even have to be in an appointed position to take part in the system through supporting a politician or political party beyond stuffing envelopes. I can think of at least one person who I worked with locally who never ran for office. He just did the complex work of calculating the statistical numbers used in all the campaigns. Over the years he became close to those in power, and more importantly, he knew the system well enough to work it and get those in power to pay attention to a particular issue. His input and influence helped me make some progress on a big issue. My work was apolitical but definitely in the communities best interest and his engagement was able to assist me further my goal.
Of course, like my friend who called me, you could always run for election. There is a clear benefit to this approach in that you are the decision maker, or at least one of them. Unfortunately, in today’s age, this approach makes as many enemies as friends. From a longer term perspective, this is the route to go, assuming you wish to grow the impact you make. The structure is pretty clear. You can start with something like the school board and jump to county commissioner. After serving as a county commissioner there is the state legislature. The natural jump from state legislature to federal is a somewhat common step. Easily understanding the path doesn’t mean walking it is easy too. All this political machinations has to be your happy place because it will take years and unless you are at the federal level it becomes a second full time job.
So what is the best route to take part in the system? Do you work like my dad or the local politico statistician did? You know the elected actors, support them, and eventually get to further the things that are important to you and your community? Do you just do non-decision making apolitical stuff, like little league, or sit on boards of local non-profits? I will admit that this tact feels great if you have the time. I think that’s why so many people who do this are retired. It’s an impactful activity, it’s gratifying, and they have the time to do it.
Doing nothing is a valid option as well. You could sit on the sidelines and just watch what happens in your community and maybe offer some words of support for those who are engaging the community system. Just managing life is complicated which is why I think that the majority of people follow this tactic.
Should you take part in the community system? That’s a personal question that everyone needs to answer. I think on the whole, if you care about your community, it’s a very good thing to consider doing at some point in your life. How you do it depends on what you are most comfortable with. The risks seem to be greater today. For me, I’m not personally going to engage any more than I do now, at least not at this point in my life. For the record, that’s saying a great deal when you consider my ‘take one step, go a mile, personality. After considering it all, when I’m ready and willing to do a deeper dive into serving my community, I think my dad’s tactic was the right way to go. He realized it’s good to engage and work for your community, just not in any job where you’ll have a big target on your back. That being said, I think all of these types of jobs have some sort of target, even if it’s a small one. I can see myself serving at a greater level at some point as I definitely do like being connected, and more importantly, I like connecting people to each other. I’d love to do that in the service of my community. And speaking of service to my community, I should probably get back to work on that website I have to build. But after that, no more. Well no more until I get another call.
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