A Political Journey – Part One
There’s no other way to tell this story than to be brutally honest. This is a primer on how to achieve a position of power, influence and privilege. The fable is followed by a dire warning and a prediction, so you’ve got to stick it out to the final curtain.
When the most significant influences in your life merge an interest in politics and public service with a thirst for information and a hunger for a good debate, there’s at least a decent possibility you’ll be infected with a virus that merges those influences.
In my own case, it took the better part of four decades to manifest. A planned downsizing of the federal government coupled with college coursework in public administration pointed toward a possible shift to work in local government.
A chance encounter with the hometown mayor turned that possibility into an opportunity, and eventually into a new career. Serving as the manager of a small town is a heady mix of shifting priorities and interesting challenges. Each day poses a new set of complications. Serving as the manager of the small town in which you live is even better, since the problems you’re fixing are impacting people you see at the grocery store and the barber shop.
That aforementioned virus started to show itself, slowly at first, but eventually becoming so pronounced it was impossible to ignore. The more time spent with the political leaders of the County, the more obvious the thought that there had to be a better way to run things than the way they were.
Here’s the first tip for aspiring politicians: You can be beloved in your hometown, but if no one outside of that community knows your name, you’d either have to be a millionaire or own a newspaper or radio station.
This isn’t just conjecture; this is the voice of experience.
The I-Can-Do-It-Better-Than-They-Can syndrome led to a filing fee and the 1998 county commissioner campaign. Not the most successful in history, though. In the end, the final vote result: coming in 7th out of 10 in the primary, not so hot.
It didn’t take a 2x4 to the head to realize that a future in politics wasn’t going to be launched from those relatively humble surroundings. So, the call from former City of Frederick Mayor Jim Grimes was the ball-rolling moment.
Mayor Grimes wanted to talk about his new organization, one that came about after a professional organizational development consultant had examined the Frederick City government structure and met with the mayor. They recommended a different model, one that included a cabinet of officers to assist with the daily grind.
It seemed that the organizational development (the study of people and organizations) consultant saw Mayor Grimes as the classic executive, a sharply focused decision maker who functioned best when surrounded by a tightly knit cadre of senior advisors. The details were better left to others, Jim would set the vision and the cabinet would carry it out.
Jim offered the job of chief operations officer, the person responsible for the technical departments. Two years of working at what is arguably the most visible position in local government led to an appointment to the Board of County Commissioners to fill out Ilona Hogan’s term. She had been squeezed out by her colleague’s inflexibility over schedule.
Let there be no doubt, a county commissioner is faced with a daunting challenge. The work can often be laborious and – at times – tedious. Reviewing water and sewer plan map amendments is about as boring as it sounds. To the applicant, however, there is nothing as important.
The budget process was a seemingly endless series of meetings and briefings with staff, as each attempted to justify their work and the money required to keep doing it.
There was a county manager, in place to presumably run the operational aspect of the government of over 1,000 employees. Regardless, the county commissioners still got more involved than was probably necessary.
All of those long hours make it difficult for members to have other jobs, what employer is willing to have an employee miss 12-15 hours a week on a regular basis? Not so much a complaint as much an explanation, as the decision to seek re-election or run for another office was certainly impacted by the hours and the compensation.
A major state legislative map redistricting two years later produced the most favorable conditions in history for a Brunswick resident to run for the House of Delegates.
Serving as a state legislator was all that was hoped for. Additionally, the schedule was favorable for a wide variety of careers. Since the General Assembly only met from January to April, it was possible to focus on another job for most of the year and develop a strategy to stay in touch during session.
Next week, the last steps in a political journey. Destination: home.