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

Jeff SmithQ. I work as a body man for an elected official who recently told me that I am in his “circle of trust,” which was, he said, why he decided to place me in such a sensitive job. A few days later he directed me to call the scheduler to cancel a midday appearance, and instead had me drive him to an apartment building. He disappeared for an hour and then came back. The next week he did it again. Yesterday he asked me to do it for a third time despite the fact that he would be missing a big event we’d discussed in staff meetings. Before calling HQ, I said, “Yes, sir, but isn’t this a pretty important event?” He replied, “Last time I checked, you were my driver, not my campaign manager.” So far we’ve been able to reschedule some things, but the point is, I am feeling pretty uncomfortable, especially since he is married. What is your advice?
—No name, no location, please

This is a tough predicament, and I’m sorry you’re dealing with it. You have three choices, as I see it.

  1. Explain to the campaign manager what is happening, without any editorializing or speculation. It may be that he/she is already aware of the issue, but you could probably shed some more light.
  2. Tell the principal you are concerned about his behavior. Don’t accuse him of infidelity, but say that people on staff are starting to ask questions about the frequent cancellations and suggest that they should stop.
  3. Quit.

According to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Game Change, John Edwards’ body guy tried Option #2, but when that didn’t change Edwards’ behavior, went to Option #1, which resulted in something like Option #3: He was summarily fired by an angry Edwards, who accused him of tattling.

Really, the point here isn’t that he’s cheating on his wife (although that’s troubling and could hurt the campaign); the point is that he’s cheating on the campaign. What he does in his personal life is no one’s business, but wasting a staffer’s time and using campaign time to get off when he should be getting votes or money? That’s unforgivable.

My overall thought: This won’t end well. With his “last time I checked” comment, the principal indicated his probable reaction if confronted, so that approach is unlikely to work. Going to the campaign manager might change the principal’s behavior but may cost you your job—at least your job as body guy—and your chances for upward mobility in this organization. So unless you are absolutely convinced that the principal is going to change the world as a public servant and that outweighs your discomfort, I’d suggest you start looking for other gigs. If you do decide to address the issue directly with the principal before making a final decision to quit, remember that doing so could make it impossible to use him (or other staff ) as a reference.

Q. I worked for a congressman who had a rule not to eat at events so he could talk and shake hands. Not wanting to be rude, he made me grab a plate in his place. So at every event I had a plate of food that I enthusiastically praised and enjoyed. After four events per day not only was I full but I was getting incredibly fat. How did you balance your campaign and your eating habits?
—C.W., Silver Spring, Md.

I may not be the best person to ask here: When my congressional campaign ended, I weighed 107 lbs. (at 5’6’’). But yes, you gotta eat something at events, especially in ethnic communities. The symbolism is powerful. However, that doesn’t mean you have to eat an entire plate. Remember when you were 5 and you tried to spread veggies across your plate to make it look as if you ate more than you actually did? If you are adroit on the front end, you can look as if you are helping yourself to a healthy portion. And no one ever said you couldn’t discreetly deposit your plate on a table before leaving. Just don’t throw it out—someone might see that. Also, work out. Given the stress and terrible food of campaigns, campaign aides should work out daily both for your physical and mental health, even if it’s just push-ups or pull-ups at lunch.

Q. Jeff, I’ve finally decided that, for me, politics is what it’s all about. I’ve even been able to narrow down the area of policy that interests me most: economic development. I’ve landed an internship for a New York City Council member and am about to apply to my community board. Moreover, I want to run for office. First stop: City Council 2017…then parlaying that experience and subsequent contacts into starting my own consulting firm (perhaps I’ll have the consulting firm concurrent with my run). I appear to have it all [figured] out. Not quite…because after this UNPAID internship I NEED A JOB! I’m patiently [training] the Council member’s staff to bringing me on full-time, but there’s no guarantee. I’m building contacts in hopes that once the internship is over—if a full-time position doesn’t pan out—perhaps another opportunity will. But everybody wants me to work for free! And applying for a position in the government could take forever! I’ve got 2 1/2 months, Jeff. Any thoughts on what to do after my internship? And might you be looking for a consultant? The first consultation is free. ;) 

—Lost & Hungry in Midtown

Nah, not looking for a consultant, unless you specialize in diaper changing and do it cheaply and are willing to work the wee hours.Seriously, it will be hard to find a consulting gig without experience. Moreover, opening a consulting company a few years after an internship doesn’t sound plausible.Regarding your candidacy, while it’s admirable to plan ahead, I’m no fan of running for office as a steppingstone to a consulting career—or really, as a stepping-stone to anything. Public service should be an end in and of itself, in my opinion, not used to position oneself for more lucrative endeavors. Plus, going from intern to City Council in four years is ambitious. Not impossible— and I don’t want to discourage ambition; hell, I ran for Congress at 29—but that’s awfully quick.You’re doing the right things in terms of making contacts. Ask people to coffee: people who have jobs that you might want someday or work for the type of firms you might want to work for or are tight with people in the aforementioned categories. Ask them what exactly they do, why they went into it, and how they got their start. It’s a grind—think of it like a field campaign—and the wider your net is, the better your odds of hearing about a gig before others, which is usually the key to getting hired.Also, keep your head down at work and excel, so that your Council member will either hire you or place you somewhere, or at least serve as a reference.

(Cross-posted, with permission of the author, from CityandStateNY.com)

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