We’ve all gotten good advice in our lives, whether from parents, peers, or wise elders.
Twenty years ago, as a rookie city council member, I got some from an experienced peer, Mary Lou Makepeace. After some hesitation, I took it – and it helped me make the slow transition from being noisy and ineffective to being a reasonably capable elected official.
When you’re first elected to office, you find it easy to believe that your calling in life is to change everything you don’t like, rail at your colleagues, stir up trouble for your political opponents, and introduce your city/county/state/nation to a glorious new dawn that only you, and few other exceptional individuals can foresee.
Then one day, Mary Lou took me aside and, in her plainspoken way, set me straight.
Opinions, she said gently, are like rear ends. Everyone has one, so don’t think that yours is anything special.
And, noting my tendency to get passionately involved in every issue that came before Council, she suggested that I back off.
“Being on Council is like one of those carnival games where you shoot rubber bullets at mechanical ducks,” she said. “There are a lot of ducks, but you only have a few shots – so you don’t shoot at every duck, just the ones you can hit. Otherwise, you run out of bullets, and you’re out of the game.”
Her point was clear. Choose the issues that are important to you and/or your district, do your homework, interact cooperatively with your peers and the community, make deals when you have to, and, remember, the ducks keep coming, and yelling at them makes no difference. Choose your targets.
Thanks to Mary Lou, I started paying attention to the way that veteran council members such as Bob Isaac, Leon Young, and Mary Lou wielded power.
They were invisible. They didn’t shoot off their mouths, they didn’t make inflammatory statements to the media, they didn’t seek publicity. But they understood their jobs, their city, and their colleagues.
Watching Sean “Mad Dog” Paige rampage wildly through the political terrain, one day trying to install a favored manager in the Hillside Community Center, the next railing over airport security procedures, and then contemptuously dismissing a Planning Commission decision, I thought of myself 20 years ago.
Sean, Sean, Sean – read Mary Lou’s advice, and, while you’re at it, here’s a little more.
>> Don’t make enemies unnecessarily. By dissing the planning commission, you just made a bunch of ‘em.
>> Take a media holiday – keep your mouth shut and your laptop turned off for a month. Figure out what you want to accomplish, not what you want to say.
>> As one of your constituents, I’m asking you to keep the damn streetlights turned off. I like seeing the stars at night in my neighborhood – don’t waste the money it’ll take to turn ‘em back on.
>> Do something about the traffic on 21st Street.
>> Get the cops to ticket the stop sign runners in my neighborhood – I almost got run over walking my dog.
>> You can’t do it alone, so stop fighting with your fellow council members and the administration. They won’t do you any favors if you make them look bad.
Those are the issues that I care about, and I’ll bet that the rest of your constituents have similar concerns. You’re a petty elected official, as I once was, with the ability to improve and enhance people’s daily lives in small ways. That’s your job.
So calm down, Mad Dog. Make nice, learn to play well with others, choose your ducks, and who knows, you might have a productive future.