It was a long time ago, but I remember it well. I won my first election over 30 years ago, before I met my husband, before my religious conversion, when I was at the height of my anti-religion period.
I won the election by defeating a 16-year incumbent most political deep-thinkers regarded as “unbeatable.” A couple of weeks later, I got a notice that I needed to show up at the Capitol to be sworn in. A friend of mine took me out and bought me a suit to wear. I didn’t have enough money to buy one for myself.
No one was ever more sure of herself than I was the day I marched into the Capitol building, all gussied up in my shiny new Representative Suit. I brought an escort of sorts. They were my running buddies (literally) my old junior high gang and a couple of bffs that I confided my every waking thought to. I led this little flock of mine up to the first man in uniform that I saw and blurted out, “Where’s the House?”
He looked us over, and said, “I think you mean the gallery. It’s up the stairs …”
“No,” I told him. “I’m a House Member.”
Women were just starting to win elections. A sprinkling of women had made it, but my chirpy group of pals and I were something new in this echoey building. Truth told, our youth and overall giddiness would still stand out today. He stared at me, then said, “Uh sorry Ma’am.” and directed me to the House. I headed toward the big doors, and he slid an arm between me and my friends.
“Sorry,” he said. “Only the Representative can go in.”
That is how I learned one of the most frightening and inflexible truths of holding public office. Your friends can help you get elected. They can strategize, sympathize and support you through the rigors and nastiness of a political campaign. They can even go out to dinner with you after the day is done and hear all about what happened at the Capitol. But when you are functioning as an elected official, you — get ready for this now — you have to stand alone.
Despite my gaggle of friends and my blithe insouciance, I wasn’t a fool about politics, not even at that early point in my political career. I had just put together, executed and survived a winning campaign against a 16-year incumbent. I was the former state director for NARAL. I was a lot of things; some good and some bad, but I knew a lot more about what I was doing that my easy attitude indicated.
If I found this realization that I had to walk through those doors alone daunting — and I did — think how stunning it must be for one of the party candidates who are beamed into office on a beam of corporate money. There’s a world of difference between an elected official who has come out on top in a vicious do-it-yourself campaign and one who spent the entire process like a little kid riding in the back seat of mommy and daddy’s car. If I was self-confident, I had some reason to be. If they are confused and mulish, they also have reason to be.
People often assume that legislating is easy; just make a few half-baked speeches, cast a couple of obvious votes and get your picture taken. In truth, it’s a complex job that changes constantly. No two days as a legislator are ever the same. I’m starting my 17th year in office, and each day of it has been different than the ones that went before. It isn’t boring. But it can be and often is terrifying. And the pressures are indescribable to anyone who hasn’t felt them.
Most of the people I work with have only a handful of years on the job as legislators. They have zero memory of the twists and turns, tricks and finagling of the past. They are like 100 geese, born into a brand new world every single day. Combine this with the fact that most of them were recruited to run based at least partly on their malleability and willingness to go along to get along, and you have a recipe for a confused and troubled legislative process.
One of the most obvious traits of these beamed-in legislators is how easy it is to scare them. Not only that, but they have a real proclivity for being afraid of the wrong things. Most of them come from backgrounds where people didn’t actively try to intimidate and bully them every minute of every day. They aren’t used to being constantly lied to, flattered, made fun of and berated. This may be the first time in their lives that they have had to stand entirely on their own.
But that is the life of a legislator. On any given day, you’re going to be called a nincompoop or worse. You’ll see unflattering cartoons of yourself and get emails from all over the world calling you things you never even heard of before. In the next instant, somebody or other will be comparing you favorably to Moses or Abraham Lincoln. It’s the ultimate hero-jerk roller coaster, and it never stops until you leave office.
At the same time, you have in your hands the awesome power of government. You can literally kill people by putting a comma in the wrong place. Or, you can save lives, give people a hope and a future, do your share to create a just and stable government that will enable people to live their lives in freedom and safety.
What you do with it, how you handle it, is up to you.
You have to walk through those doors alone. And you have to figure out how to do this complex, ever-changing job by yourself. You have to find a way to deal with the demands and needs of tens of thousands of constituents, how to run the traps and do the work to pass legislation, how to discern who’s lying and who’s telling the truth, how to keep your balance in the face of alternating adulation and abuse, and how to keep from losing yourself to the hype and unreality of it, how to stay an authentic person. You have to do this, and you’ve got to do it by yourself.
It isn’t easy. But after 16 years of it, I can tell you, it is rewarding. It is meaningful work.
I don’t recommend it to everybody. But I do recommend it. Public office can and should be a form of servant leadership. We need men and women who are grounded in a deep faith and personal morality, with strong characters and the ability to think for themselves to run for office.
Those are the kind of people who can handle it when they learn that no matter how rigorous the campaign, the scary part comes after the election.