How to survive in politics
With the overwhelming election of Alana Chernila to the Great Barrington Board of Selectmen, I thought I’d just pass on a few words of advice to her.
Indeed, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for all fledgling politicians to consider these words. I am delighted that Alana won so decisively. It proves that the people are looking for new, fresh approaches to the way we do our politics. But with that said, there are some potential pitfalls to avoid.
Here are some rules.
Don’t take anything that anyone says to you on face value. You will have to assert your independence. For example, if the town manager tells you that the town has to go one way or the other on a major policy issue, question him on his reasons. If he tells you that the town has to tear up the main street and uproot the beautiful flowering pear trees because “we’ll get money for the project if we do it right now,” ask the essential questions.
You might ask, “Yes, but is it right for us? Do we want to interrupt business for months or for years?” You might ask, “How did we get by all these years without doing this?” Or, you might ask, “Are we absolutely sure that in this time of fiscal stress the money will really be forthcoming?” or “Can we afford this?” The point is that you owe it to yourself and your constituents to ask these questions even if you are intuitively in favor of the project.
You need to signal your colleagues on the board, the people who work for the town, that you will not be a patsy and sit there impassively with your mouth shut. Speak up and get the respect that you deserve. When votes come up on the board don’t be afraid to stake out your own position.
You can’t be loved by everyone. Don’t try to be or it will make you crazy.
You’ll get whiplash going back and forth between opposing constituencies. I used to know this dean who would tell the last person in the room what they wanted to hear. That’s a big mistake. Do your homework, stake out a position and then stick with it. If and when your fellow board members act in a condescending manner, call them on it. I’ve voted for and supported some wonderful folks who were too impassive when it came to holding their own.
Elections are fun but working on policy is much harder. I know that you got a lot of votes but with each decision you make, you will lose some votes. It is seldom that you see any modern politician with more than a 50 percent approval rating.
Don’t get discouraged. There will be those days when you lose a battle or you lose a friend or someone gets in your face. Some of the people who will ask you for something will be extremely rude. They will threaten you; they’ll tell you that they won’t ever vote for you again; they’ll tell you that are going to sue you and take your house away.
They’ll ask you to do things for them and you’re just going to have to say no. There isn’t a day that I don’t face that in my work. Be kind, be nice but be firm. They’ll be back for something else that you may be able to help them with.
Never break the law. It is imperative that you know the state ethics law.
People may try to compromise you. They’ll flatter you; they may try to bribe you by feeding you or doing business with you. No matter what, you have to turn them down. The moment you break the law — no matter how small a break — remember that they’ll own you. The next time, you’ll have to do what they say. It is never worth it to cut corners, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time. There are people in the press who feed on this stuff. They love it. There are weirdo crazies out these who make it their business to drive public officials out of their minds.
Watch out for the press. They’ll call you and just remember that every word you say is being written down. These are not your friends but professionals doing their jobs. If you say something that is ill advised, you’ll see it blown up, taken out of context and coming back to haunt you. Less is more.
Remember that folks in the press love a fight. Often, if there isn’t one, they’ll make one so be measured and think before you speak.
With all of that said, Alana and all the rest of you who trying to do a good job, be of good cheer and have fun. You’ll remember this experience all of your life. I know I have.
Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 5/15/10