How to be a Successful Big City Pol

Richard Daley… Rudy Giuliani… Ed Rendell… Steven Goldsmith…. Martin O’Malley…  Marion Barry…  Richard Riordan…

There’s not much these seven men have in common.  Some are Republicans, others Democrats.  Some were policy-oriented thinkers, others fly by the seat of your pants doers.   One is known for his appetite for food (Rendell) and another for his appetite for illegal drugs (Barry).  Yet, all seven do share at least one thing in common:  each was a successful big city pol.

As anyone who has run for office in a major urban area can attest, elections there are different in many ways.  Sure, the fundamentals remain the same: you have to fundraise.  You have to have a plan.  You need to work the grassroots.  But lots of things are different as well.  Here are four things to remember if you want to be a successful big city pol:

1.  You have to be Larger Than Life

Big metropolitan areas usually have lots of well-known characters living there.  Everyone knows the names of the professional athletes, the news anchors, the criminals, the famous chefs…  Add to that the fact that TV and radio time is exponentially more expensive in urban areas than out in farm country, and it’s tough to get well known in a metropolis.

To break through the clutter and raise your name ID, a big city pol needs to be larger than life.  You need to have an outgoing personality, propose audacious changes or programs, and cast a big vision for your city.  (See also: A Guide to Raising Your Name ID).

2.  Voter Touches Matter More

Voters in big cities expect to see their politicians.  They have gotten used to seeing the mayor at rallies, chicken dinners, and in the neighborhood 4th of July parade.  They want a little more “city” grit and charm in their elected officials…. Voter touches matter in every election, but for a big city pol, working the grassroots, slapping backs and shaking hands, becomes a way of life.

3.  Trust but Verify

In small towns, where there may be 5 elected town council-people governing just 1000 residents, there’s generally a lot more sunshine on political proceedings.  Everybody knows everybody.  It’s hard to cut deals, or make alliances, and keep them secret.  If you are seriously supporting some person or issue, or seeking the support of someone else, then it’s generally public knowledge.

The opposite is true in most big cities.  There, you may have a 25 person city council with a strong mayor governing a city of 1.5 million.  There are thousands of businesses, trade groups, churches, lobbyists, neighborhood organizations and the like, all jockeying for their place in the public consciousness.  Alliances are made and broken and made again, and deals are easy to hide.

Ronald Reagan often said “trust but verify.”  This is great advice for an aspiring big city pol:  because there are so many moving parts in big city politics, and because it is so easy to hide alliances and backroom deals, trust people and take them at their word… but verify what they are saying or promising before acting on it.

4.  Act with Integrity

This is good advice for anyone running for public office, but particularly important for big city pols to remember.  If you’re in politics, act with integrity.  This means: say what you mean, or don’t say it.  Stick to the letter and spirit of the law.  Act in the public interest, and not your own.  Be a person of principle.  Remember, whether you’re in the big city, the suburbs, or out in the hinterland, what we do in politics matters.


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