So, You Want To Be A Politician?

An acquaintance recently suggested he was going into politics — and asked me for advice.

As someone who has covered politics as a journalist, has worked in politics as a strategist and has close friends in politics, I tend to field this question quite a bit. So much so, in fact, that rather than have the conversation over and over again, I thought I’d put my thoughts in a blog that I can forward to people who are kicking the tires. Now you can do the same if you’re asked. Efficient, eh?

So, you want to be a politician? I don’t want to deter you, because politics and politicians matter — as they form our laws and policies. But, I also don’t want you to go in blind.

Here’s are the realities you need to know up front:

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Cast: House of Cards

Change is hard (and boring):

Politics isn’t sexy and exciting like “House of Cards” or “West Wing”. Campaigning is exciting, but governing is hard. The bulk of the work is monotonous and without much fanfare. The novelty wears off fast. The fact is making a difference is difficult. If you’re in party politics, you’re competing with everyone else who wants to make their own changes. If you’re in opposition, you’re essentially a professional heckler. It’s not as easy as you think. Even getting the most obvious common-sense legislation passed can take years of work. In local politics, you’re typically one voice on a council of competing interests. Even mayors have limited powers to affect change. They can’t make anything happen without a majority vote of council. It’s not a dictatorship. It’s not impossible to make a difference and you can truly make society a better place, but appreciate you will have to work your ass off to make change happen. So, roll your sleeves up.

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Privacy no more:

Everything you do is now of public interest, rightly or wrongly. Some of it will be of media interest (i.e. business that went bankrupt in the past, smoked weed in high school, divorced, stuff you said on social media 10 years ago, sexting pictures, etc.). Some of it will be fodder for bloggers or people on social media. This is much different than it was for politicians decades ago. You are on full display in all your glory. And, it’s not always sensational. For example, went to a restaurant and only tipped 10 per cent? That could become a tweet and if it gets enough action on social media, it becomes a news story in a smaller community. Union is upset with you? They could picket your house, look in your front window (yes, this has happened to people I know). You think you’re prepared for this? You’re not. Not by a long shot. Eyes wide open, folks.

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Randi Berez for Bloomberg Businessweek

Can you take a punch?

You think you have thick skin already? Think you can take a punch? You haven’t been tested until you’ve been in politics. Beyond your actual policies and platform, people will talk about your weight, your hair, your clothes, your spouse, your kids, your finances, your education, your house, your parents, your siblings. They will call you horrible names and accuse you of horrible things that you can’t defend without risk of giving them credence.  They will hit you hard. I had a buddy stopped in a grocery store, pushing his toddler in the cart, when someone approached him and called him a fucking asshole. He had to smile and take it. Take the bait and maybe someone else is filming it on their phone and now you have a story. Learn to take a punch and move on.

HARPER AND CHILDREN
Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper shaking his son’s hand

Your family better have thick skin, too:

You are the politician. After a while, you will become numb to this like any kind of trauma. But, your spouse won’t ever get used to it. Your children might hear other kids (or even teachers) talking shit about you at school. And, you will never get used to people attacking your family or criticizing how you parent. Depending on your level of politics, you and your family are a package deal when it comes to politics. So, make sure you have a painfully frank conversation with your family about this before getting into politics. You may benefit from meeting with people who have already done the career in politics and hearing it first hand and how to cope. You can’t imagine what’s coming.

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Say goodbye to weekends and holidays:

Politics isn’t a 9-to-5 job if you’re doing it right. If you’re a full-time politician, most days start at 6 a.m. and end when you shut your phone off at midnight. There are meetings and phone calls and emails until you physically shut off your devices. Weekends are a flurry of community events. If you’re a Cabinet minister, throw Cabinet priorities and travel on top of all the work back in the constituency. This is an 80-hour-a-week job. If you don’t put that kind of time into it, you will likely not meet/affect enough people to get re-elected. If you’re a part-time politician (town councillor), you have to do your day job and then your municipal work on top of it, like preparing for meetings and committees. And your phone will ring non-stop from your constituents with every small issue you can imagine, from garbage pickup to power outages. It ends up being a full-time job. Don’t take my word for it – speak to someone who is, or was, a politician. If you’re not prepared to put this kind of work into the job, do yourself and your family a huge favour, and walk away. Hell, no, run away as fast you can.

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Picture: The West Australian

The money sucks for the abuse you take:

Look. Politicians don’t get paid enough. If you disagree, you have no concept of how hard they work and the utter bullshit they put up with (as cited earlier). Most politicians have excellent professional backgrounds and educations. That politician who makes $115,000? With the hours they work, that ends up being $45,000 plus overtime if you do the calculation properly like it was any other government unionized job (based on a 40-hour work week). They’re always away from family, too. For local politicians, the pay is even worse. It’s true — no one is forcing them to run for politics. But, we need politicians and we need good ones (more now than ever). And, you get what you pay for, in my opinion. Don’t get into politics for the money or you will be thoroughly disappointed in the end.

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The bottom line:

This may not be what you wanted to hear. You likely have friends and family encouraging you to run because they believe in you – and that’s awesome. However, chances are they’ve never intimately been involved in politics. Or perhaps you have some business interests or a political party pressuring you, telling you how great you are and how their polling numbers suggest you can win (the oldest play in the book…play to ego). They will tell you they’ll “throw the team” behind you (they won’t) and hold fundraisers to raise all the money needed to campaign (ya, right). At the end of the day, getting elected is brutally exhausting on you and your family. And, if you’re fortunate enough to win, well, all of the above. Again, I don’t want to discourage you, but I want you to go in with your eyes WIDE open to the realities of politics. Society needs good people running and running for the right reasons. If you’ve read all of this and you still want to run, you are either, a) driven to effect change, or b) delusional.  I’m hoping it’s the former. Good luck and get out there and knock on some doors (thousands of them).