Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Top Ten Things I Want You To Know About Becoming A Politician

A few weeks ago the Esquimalt Residents Association (ERA) asked me to give the keynote speech for their AGM. I said yes immediately....without recognizing how difficult it would be. Each time I sat down to write, I was overcome with emotion. It felt like I was writing a goodbye speech.

I focused my efforts on procrastination. I folded laundry. I walked the dog. For the first time ever, I filled out all the "Back To School" forms on time. Eventually, the speech was the only thing left on the "to do" list.

With only days left...I finally asked for help. After a long, late night chat with a good friend...the following speech poured out onto the paper.

After the AGM, several people asked for a copy. In the past week, more have requested it. I hesitate...but after some gentle nudging and some not so subtle badgering...I've agreed to put it online. Many thanks to my friend and editor who helped make this legible.

Please do me a favour and pretend I'm saying it out loud. It really was meant to be spoken and not read. I personally favour the voice of James Earl Jones...but whatever makes you forget about the poor grammar is fine with me.

ERA AGM Speech, September 27th, 2011 at the Archie Browning Sports Centre

Conventional wisdom says to open with a joke...so I wrote one for tonight: “how many municipal politicians does it take to change a light bulb?” “4 to commission a staff report, 3 to form a sub-committee, 2 to debate whether or not good process was followed and 1 to tweet about how if only 1 more person had voted for their 2009 resolution on sustainable energy sources in publicly owned buildings there would be no need to spend taxpayer money on a light bulb at all!”

While I really really want to stop myself from poking fun at politicians we are such a rich source of comic material that I can’t seem to stop myself. I want to try though. Particularly tonight, because I hope to convince each and every one of you, that you ARE politicians.

That joke at the beginning might not be so funny now that I’m delivering the bad news right up front. You ARE a politician. And I’m not just talking to those of you who have already declared that you’re running for public office. You don’t have to belong to a political party. You don’t have to like the word “politician”...you just have to care about what happens in your community. And since each of you walked through that door voluntarily tonight...you’re busted. Every one of you is a politician. And I’m finally ready to admit...that I am one too.

I spent a little time Googling this word. Naturally I found a lot of expletive laden definitions that neither my Mom nor my former campaign managers would let me repeat in public. We don’t have a particularly good reputation as a profession. Even the sweet, typically non-inflammatory magazine of my childhood, Readers Digest, pointed out in a recent survey, that Politicians are the least trusted profession in Canada. That hurt a little. You know your likability has taken a turn for the worse when a monthly that regularly features “cute things that kids say” is dissing your career choice! However, I found a definition that I like:”someone who is actively engaged in shaping public policy”. THAT sounds an awful lot like each of YOU. YOU shape public policy with every email, every letter, every conversation you have with your neighbours. You ARE a politician – whether you like the word or not.

Now I know that this might be a bit of a shock for some of you. It certainly was for me. I denied it until well after I was elected. Obviously, I missed a lot of signs along the way.

In April 2007, I walked into Council Chambers for the first time. I made a pledge to the Council of the Day and to the hundreds gathered there, that I would do whatever it took to keep the Archie Browning Sports Centre open. It didn’t occur to me that I was becoming a politician. As part of that commitment, I volunteered to contribute to an audit of this facility. Even standing on this very roof with a hard hat didn’t suggest to me that I had made some sort of shift. By December of 2007, I’d hired a regular Monday night babysitter so that I didn’t have to worry about missing something down the street at City Hall. I was writing regularly for the newly formed ERA newsletter and I had a copy of the Official Community Plan on my bedside table. My colleagues at work have a running joke about how I started every conversation with “This one time...at Archie Browning...” Still, I wouldn’t admit to being a politician. By then, local media often called to ask for a quote or an interview on Esquimalt issues. That didn’t tip me off either... In fact, in the midst of a live interview on CFAX, the presenter asked me, “Are you considering running for Council?” and I spat out haughtily, “I am NOT a politician”. Those words did taste a little bitter when I ate them recently.

Even when I made the decision to run...and was elected, I had a hard time with the word. I felt a little twisted pride when I heard people say, “She doesn’t SEEM like a politician.” So, I guess it might sound a little bizarre that now, with only a few weeks left in my political “career” that I am finally publically stating that “I AM a politician” and I intend to continue being one. But here is why I’ve come to ask each of you to consider doing the same.

When Beth and I first met and came up with the idea of starting a non-partisan residents association, we often talked about the “disconnect” that existed between a council, who could close a public facility, and with the community that was so deeply and personally affected by those decisions. While this current Council has made a deliberate and concerted effort to eliminate that disconnect and reach out to each and every resident in Esquimalt, sometimes it is still there. Sometimes, the environment in which we make decisions on issues that affect YOUR life is an extremely hostile one. I’m ready to admit that I AM a politician if only to continue breaking down that sense of US vs. THEM. I want to do what I can to break down the antagonism and hostility that creeps in...and scares away good people and good ideas. I do hope that each of you will join me in admitting that you too are a politician. Because I want the public policy that affects MY life to be shaped by my whole community. That includes YOU.
So whether or not you’re ready to accept it, and even though you certainly didn’t ask for it, I am going to offer you some unprofessional, unsolicited advice. Here are my...

“ Top Ten Things I want you to know about becoming a Politician”.

#10. You do NOT need to make decisions on a “Need to know” basis. If you are asked for your comments, concerns or approvals of anything...make sure you have all the information that you need. You will find that there are times when the whole picture is not automatically delivered to you. Do not let anyone else define the amount of information you need to make a good decision.

#9. There is such a thing as “Too Much Information”. After having spent my 36th Birthday at a 6 hour seminar on the Merits of Urine Separation in Wastewater Treatment... I can guarantee you that there are times when ignorance is bliss.

#8. Every issue is someone’s Archie Browning. Despite a keen interest in most things and in all people...I admit that there are occasions when the issue of the day does not instantly evoke a strong personal and dedicated response in me. It does in someone though...or else it wouldn’t be on the table. I believe each issue deserves the same care and thoughtful consideration that I demanded be given of the Archie Browning Sports Centre in 2007. I remember well how hard my hands were shaking when I approached Council for the first time. I was part of an excited crowd that spilled out the door and into the streets....and still I was terrified. Just because a person is coming forward alone doesn’t mean that their issue is less important. Some things are just harder to rally support for. Just ask the guy whose life’s work is Urine Separation!

#7. The issues might not be what you think they are. When I ran for Council, I was sure I knew ALL the issues that might face me in my term. I researched them all and wrote lengthy position papers on each topic. My campaign manager even laminated them for me so that when I went door knocking I could still show then to people in the rain! Funny thing was, no one wanted to see them. There is only one sure way to know what people really care about. Ask. When I did ask, I was honoured with wonderful stories about Esquimalt. When someone shares what really matters to them it is a gift. Treasure it. To illustrate my point further...I’ll ask you what to guess what recent issue I’ve received tons of feedback on and I’ll give you three hints:

1. Public opinion seems to be varied on whether or not the project is aesthetically pleasing.
2. Some have expressed concerns about the process.
3. There has been suspicion about the motivation behind undertaking the project at all.


The issue I have recently received the MOST feedback on lately is my recent weight loss. I did NOT have a position paper researched, prepared and laminated for this.

#6. Politicians are human. Hopefully this doesn’t come as a TOTAL shock to you, especially now that you’re all proudly admitting to be one. Unfortunately, my experience has been that this does warrant mentioning. If you are willing to put yourself in the public eye....you will face intense criticism. It is likely that some of the criticism will be delivered in a way that offends or even threatens you. Do extract the truth and value from the critique. Do not let the hatred scare you from being human. You may have met some politicians, particularly during ‘silly season’ who have let hostility turn them slightly robotic. “Nice weather!” you might say....”My party has the best platform for climate change” they respond. Try to short circuit that disconnect however you can. Make a joke. Dance a jig. Share a cup of tea. Just don’t forget that there really is a human in there, probably an interesting one. Take the time to try and get them “out of the message box”. You might meet someone you really like.
#5. Anger is a great motivator...but it is not sustainable. It was anger that started MY career in politics...and when I look back on these last few years, there is no doubt that my sharpest memories will be tinted with the heat of this emotion. But anger doesn’t last and change, real change, takes time. We need to find, within each of us, the energy to make change...and it needs to come from a more lasting source than anger. For me, it comes from the joy of knowing and caring about my neighbours. I am fuelled by my feelings of belonging and connectedness to my community.....so Esquimalt is kind of stuck with me. I intend to be shaping public policy for a long, long time even though I’m stepping down from Council. And if we truly want to encourage more of our community to participate, we need to nurture the things that bring us closer. Not fuel the things that scare people away.

#4. Set some boundaries. I struggle with this. I tend to get caught up in discussion even when I should be focused on something else. On vacation one summer, I asked my kids what they liked best about Horne Lake. I expected the answer to be ‘canoeing’ or ‘caving’. My 8 year old said “No one here knows that you raised taxes.” I’ve learned it’s OK to consider the setting and circumstances before engaging in serious discussion. In the change room at the pool is almost always a bad place to talk. In my experience, if one of us is not fully clothed, the issue might not be getting the attention it deserves. Arrange a better time to talk things out. Also, if your child is vomiting every 30 minutes, it probably makes sense not to pick up the phone. When every bedset you own is in the washer and you don’t know where or whether or not you’ll sleep tonight....that caller’s concerns aren’t going to feel like much of a priority. Call them back when you have had 4 hours of sleep in a row.

#3. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be a politician. There is no reason strong enough to hold you back. You don’t have to attend Harvard Law. You don’t have to identify with a spot of the political spectrum. You don’t have to know “the right people”. You don’t have to own a dozen fancy suits. I have none of these things....plus I have spent a lifetime trying to crack the mysterious code that tells the really well dressed people in this world whether to wear jeans or a skirt to a function. If you ever feel like you’re the only person at the cocktail party wearing the wrong thing...don’t worry about it. I’m probably on the other side of the room showing someone the shoes I bought in 1997 for $10 bucks. Getting involved in politics means that opportunities will present themselves where you may feel nervous or pushed outside your comfort zone. Good. Feel nervous. Just don’t miss out. In the last few years, I’ve had remarkable conversations with people I thought I’d only ever read about in the newspapers. Conversations I’m going to be telling my grandchildren about. And I was wearing these $10 shoes.

#2. Hold the people you LOVE close. You will meet a wealth of people. Get to know as many of them as you can. Each of them has something valuable to share and your life will be richer for it. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll meet the rare friend who you connect with beyond the bylaw you’re discussing...or the event you are planning together. The kind of friend who says to you “we’re always good” and you believe it. Someone that recognizes and cares for the most authentic, most honest, most real part of you. If you are fortunate enough to know someone like this – you MUST hold them close. Because, in my opinion, if you are doing this right, you’re going to be scared out of your socks a whole lot of the time. If you’re really listening to the multitude of voices and differing opinions out there...sometimes, it’s going to feel like you’ve got 12 different radio stations cranked up full volume at once. You’re going to need someone who can hold your hands, quiet the noise, and help you hear the voice that is in your heart.

And the number one thing that I would like to leave you with tonight is:

#1. On the days when you ask yourself “Is it worth it?” Is it worth it to put myself out there...to be part of my community in such a personal way....Is it worth it to be a politician? On the days when you ask yourself that question...and you will...KNOW that the answer is YES.