Jeff Smith: Do As I Say – A Political Advice Column

Jeff SmithQ: What should you do if you work for a candidate or elected official who doesn’t turn out to be quite who you thought they’d be? I’m not talking about any kind of scandalous behavior but about pols who wind up not being as dedicated to the policies they preach, or candidates who try to present a reformer image but are in fact willing to take money from the “wrong” sorts of people. Should you stay to build up your résumé— and your connections? Or should you try to be true to what you really believe? —D.N., New York City

Great question. The answer depends on why you decided to work for the politican in the first place. If you are an idealist who was inspired by the candidate when you first met him/her and thus decided to apply for a job, then I think you should probably leave, since the work appears to be a disheartening, compromising experience. If, on the other hand, you took the job because you saw it as a good way to get where you want to be, then you should probably stay, so long as the job continues to serve that purpose.

No candidate is as wonderful as his staunchest supporters imagine or as awful as his fiercest opponents allege. Paul Wellstone, the first politician I ever “fell for,” voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 as he faced a tough re-election battle. While I understood the political context, his vote disappointed me. (He later apologized and said he regretted the vote.) Conversely, John Ashcroft, whom I reviled as a U.S. senator and attorney general, ultimately made a very courageous decision, standing up to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card regarding a domestic surveillance decision as he lay on what he thought was his deathbed. I try to keep these examples in mind before falling too hard for—or harshly condemning—any politician.

Q: So, dude, I’m a former high school teacher and I keep getting Facebook friended by girls I taught who have become WAY hot. So here’s the thing: I’m hoping to run for office next year and my question is, is it okay for me to message them to ask for help with my campaign, or will it totally creep them out? —Hot for Student, Somewhere in the Midwest

So, dude, maybe you haven’t been keeping up with the news, but have you heard of this guy named Anthony Weiner? Yeah, because you make him sound classy.

Regarding messaging them: As your FB friends, they will be able to see all of your updates once you announce your campaign, and will be able to decide on their own if they would like to volunteer. But if you’d like to reach out to them to make an individual ask—which is always more effective than a mass update—I’d suggest you do so via a campaign manager or volunteer coordinator. I actually didn’t follow the advice I’m giving—I reached out to many former students personally for campaign help—but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say I wasn’t as creepy as you.

Q: Have you been following the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina? I have, and they got me thinking about something. I know there are a lot of important issues at stake with the protests, but I wanted to ask about the strategic side of it. When the protesters gathered recently, Gov. Pat McCrory came out to give them cookies. Was that a good move, do you think? And do you think protesters should as a rule refuse food/drink in situations like that, even if they are really hungry/ thirsty? —A Carolinian Stranded in NYC

First question: Was it a good move by McCrory? In isolation, no. It’s one thing to bring food as a peace offering to begin a substantive conversation about a disagreement. In fact, I did that once. I was hosting a 3-on-3 basketball tournament/barbecue/community fair and a dozen protesters showed up with handmade signs blaring, “No BBQ, No Basketball, No Racist Jeff Smith!” I offered the protesters barbecue and lemonade, and they were eating so voraciously we could scarcely even hold a conversation. At least they stopped waving the signs. Of course, that may not be the best example since (we soon discovered) the protesters were being paid by my opponent’s father, unlike the Moral Monday protesters, who are clearly passionate and ideologically motivated.

The problem is that McCrory did not bring the cookies as a prelude to a conversation. He brought them in lieu of a conversation. And so instead of being perceived as a conciliatory peace offering, the offer seemed conde-scending and dismissive. Food only works as a bridge to a genuine conversation about people’s differences.

Second question: Should protesters accept food/drink in similar situations? I think the above delineation is probably a good guide. That is, protesters should only accept if the sustenance is part of a more substantive effort at reconciliation. As Michael Gecan writes in his organizing manifesto Going Public, the key to effective protests is having a strategy and clear objectives. That means, among other things, bringing food so that you are not operating from a position of weakness, and not having to accept anything from opponents other than that for which you are protesting. For more on the broader importance of dignity during protests under the media’s piercing glare, see Rep. John Lewis’ poignant memoir Walking With the Wind, which describes extensive training for civil rights activists to ensure they never act in any way that could hurt the broader movement. The acceptance or rejection of food is a small part of a protest, but protesters’ small decisions add up to a broader media image that affects a movement’s success or failure, so each decision should be carefully considered.

(Cross-posted from CityandStateNY.com)

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