Politicking: How to Get Elected, Take Action, and Make an Impact in Your Communityby Bill Rauch
How to get elected--and live to tell the tale
Bill Rauch has lived an unusual political life: a decade as press secretary, advance man, and confidant to New York mayor Ed Koch, followed by a decade as city councilman and now as mayor of Beaufort, South Carolina.
In this account of the ways and means of local politics, Rauch contends that a great/p>/p>/b>
How to get elected--and live to tell the tale
Bill Rauch has lived an unusual political life: a decade as press secretary, advance man, and confidant to New York mayor Ed Koch, followed by a decade as city councilman and now as mayor of Beaufort, South Carolina.
In this account of the ways and means of local politics, Rauch contends that a great city and an antebellum town pose the same challenge-that of blending blood sport and selfless public service day in and day out. How to get elected, run a meeting, work the room, and take credit when it is due; how to ward off threats from rivals and control the agenda; how to look good on camera, leak stories, and shape press coverage to your advantage: Rauch illustrates these crucial points of political life with vivid and often hilarious inside stories from his tenure in New York and in Beaufort.
Politicking is a winning blend of political primer and personal chronicle; more than that, it is an unusually candid account of how the political game is played-and won-in America today.
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PART ONEGaining Power1. Do SomethingTO win a seat in your local government it is helpful to have distinguished yourself by doing something that a significant sector of the electorate wanted to see done. If getting that good thing accomplished means you consorted with radicals on the fringe, that's not a problem. But before the race goes off, you should demonstrate your responsible nature by moving into the mainstream.Across America there are parks and hospitals that need building and shopping centers in the middle of nowhere and expressways through neighborhoods that need stopping. There are also many badly needed libraries, schools, paths, roads, and bridges. Spearhead one of those efforts successfully and you have taken a big first step.Americans like their representatives to be tough fighters. It makes sense. When you get elected you have been chosen to represent a group of otherwise essentially powerless individuals against a potentially all-powerful government. You are their defender, one of their very few. While it can be good to be smart, if you can be only one thing, it's better to be a relentless advocate for your constituents, individually and as a group. There are plenty of smart folks in the political boneyard who spent their time being smart and not helping their constituents.It's a plus to look good. It's a plus to speak well. It's a plus to know at least one of the issues in depth. But it is essential thatyou be perceived as tough. If you get knocked down, get up, brush yourself off with grace, stay in touch with your friends, wait quietly for the next election cycle, and come out swinging. The chances are you'll be stronger than you were before.
One of the most beautiful two-lane country roads in America runs seventeen miles south and east from Beaufort, South Carolina, across several of the Sea Islands, and out to the Atlantic Ocean. As it sets out from Beaufort, U.S. 21, as it is known, crosses an exquisite 1959 erector-set-style swing-span bridge over the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. From there, as it leaves the complexities of the city behind, the road meanders past saltwater marshes and along tidal creeks as it approaches a number of historic places. Crossing over Chowan Creek and its savannahs, at mile five the road passes on to St. Helena Island, the center of America's Gullah culture, where for hundreds of years people of West African descent have adapted their old world culture to the new world ways of the Anglo-Saxon Christians.On our left a few more miles along is a two-story corner store that was the commercial hub of the Sea Island cotton boom from 1830 through the 1850s, and across the road is a one-story loft that was the island's first African-American co-op after the War of Northern Aggression, as it is sometimes called in these parts.From that historic crossroads, U.S. 21 passes a giant live oak tree, known locally as the Emancipation Oak, in whose shade 135 years ago the slaves of the planters were gathered to hear the Emancipation Proclamation read for the first time. Then the road runs back out into the country--and back into time--and motorists are treated to the sight of grazing cattle with glimpses of the St. Helena Sound in the distance. At about mile twelve theroad rounds a wide bend and reveals a mile-long savannah, passes a shrimpers' dock, crosses another swing-span bridge, and meanders among small inland islands and the barrier islands that mark the Atlantic, until at mile seventeen it ends at the gates of privately owned Fripp Island.Early in 1991 the South Carolina Highway Commission announced that it would widen to five lanes the section of U.S. 21 that runs from Beaufort onto St. Helena Island, past the corner store and the Emancipation Oak. The Commission also declared that when funding was available they intended to make the road five lanes all the way to the beaches.The tiny environmental community in Beaufort County knew that real estate development follows government-funded infrastructure improvements. Put another way, big housing developments don't get built where there aren't highways and where there isn't access to a sewage treatment facility.The U.S. 21 corridor was already zoned for commercial development. Sanitary sewer access was already on parts of St. Helena Island. All that was missing was the highway. With the highway would come the housing developments, the Zippy Lubes and Burger Kings and drive-thru banks and dry cleaners that are such familiar fixtures on the outskirts of post-World War II American cities. When the Highway Commission widens that road, the environmentalists said to one another, St. Helena is finished.There is a natural reluctance among those who have been around government for a while to step in the way of "progress." I had been around government for a while, and so I was reluctant. Moreover, I was a newcomer, having just moved into Beaufort's historic district three years earlier. The South Carolina Highway Commission had never been beaten. The local elected officials were lined up behind the project. The Good Ole Boys who arethe establishment in small southern towns and who stood to benefit from the public investment were vigorously--even jubilantly--behind the elected officials. Here was big government finally poised to make a big investment in a place that a generation before had been the poorest place in the poorest state in the United States.As a newspaperman by training, I knew there were two sides to the story. But as a husband and father and new citizen of my newly adopted hometown, I couldn't stand to think of this beautiful road turned over time into just another suburban-anywhere streetscape. The beauty of the road was just the beginning. Development would inevitably drive up land prices and taxes, and the escalation would change the whole area. Poor people whose families received their land from the Lincoln Administration would be forced off it after 130 years. Farmers would quit farming and try to become developers of their crop land, at least until they discovered the vast sums that must be amassed to push large developments forward. Then they would simply sell out to the big boys from Atlanta. A beautiful and unique place was about to lose its character. As someone who wanted to see my new hometown thrive, there was a further consideration: the widened road would inevitably draw economic vitality out of the city.The Ledger covered the story, but to me it just wasn't enough. While a newspaper can sound the alarm, activists must answer it. But they didn't. My first call was to Dana Beach, a founder of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, based in Charleston, seventy-five miles north of Beaufort. Not only are these people the best environmental group in South Carolina, they are the best at what they do of any group between the Chesapeake Bay and Miami. But as a group they were only threeyears old, and had never gotten involved in Beaufort County politics. Beach was reluctant, but he came down to Beaufort and we sat in my living room and cooked up a strategy that did not involve him in its initial stage.In the same way that in an election you can't beat somebody with nobody, in a public policy controversy you can't stop a project without a viable alternative. And even then it's a long shot. Sometimes, however, you can get the proposal changed. That was the direction we took.Viewed most broadly, there were three parts of U.S. 21. There was the part in the city: a city street running through the heart of the city. There was the part the Commission proposed to widen, from the swing-span bridge across Lady's and St. Helena Islands to the Emancipation Oak. And there was the part from the tree to the beach. We focused on the seven-and-a-half-mile middle part from the bridge to the Oak. We decided if we could draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and say "no widening on St. Helena," then we could stop the widening of not only the several miles of the proposed widened road that crossed St. Helena Island, but also all of the future project to widen the road from the Oak to the beach.At the same time, we focused on the U.S. 21 city street that runs through Beaufort. On the other side of the city, as U.S. 21 comes in from the west, the street is a five-lane strip mall. As it approaches the city's national landmark historic district, however, the road regains its scale, that of a four-lane boulevard, and as it enters the district it narrows to two lanes, changes its name to Carteret Street, and sweeps around a dramatic ninety-degree turn at the edge of the Beaufort River before proceeding past the college, and out toward the islands.A quaint city street with a five-lane highway on either end isa recipe for disaster: a one-mile bottleneck in the middle of a thirty-five-mile-long five-lane expressway. Moreover, were it to be widened into an expressway, it would run highway traffic through, and thus divide, the city's historic district, the source of much of Beaufort's charm and much of its livelihood. If we could call attention to the threat posed to the historic district, Dana and I reasoned, we could begin to mobilize public opinion against the project. Carteret Street had many more friends in high places than did the stretch of the road out closer to the ocean. Suddenly the residents of the historic district would see the widening as a threat to their tranquil neighborhood, and their property values. Once enlisted to "Save Carteret Street," we hoped they would keep marching on behalf of keeping U.S. 21 a two-lane road out to the islands.A grassroots effort like stopping a highway or a shopping center, at its essentials, is just like getting a bill passed. The bill's advocates try to tailor the bill to benefit as many constituent groups as possible. This is what lobbyists get paid millions of dollars to do every year in Washington. The money gets paid because the benefits to various business groups are so great, and because the terrain is relatively complicated. But basic "consensus building" work is pretty simple, especially at the local level. Only a working knowledge of your community is required. "Who stands to benefit from what we are trying to do?" is the basic question. "If we do it this way, will it benefit so-and-so as well?" "Are we willing to do that to get his, her, their support?" "Who's against us?" "What can we do to temper their opposition?" "Under what circumstances can their group be divided?" Those are the secondary questions.At that first meeting in my living room, Dana and I determined that two grassroots advocacy groups should be formed:the Carteret Street Association and the Sea Island Scenic Parkway Coalition. Dana then put me in touch with Ken Driggers at the then two-year-old Palmetto Conservation Foundation in Columbia, which specialized in working side-by-side with neighborhood groups, land trusts, and governments to help them do good planning.After organizing a handful of my neighbors into the Carteret Street Association, we passed the hat among concerned merchants on Carteret Street. With their $50 and $100 contributions came their unwavering support. We also received larger contributions from individuals who were more affluent and who just loved beauty, many the residents of the antebellum homes in the historic district who had chosen to live in Beaufort for its combination of natural and urban beauty.Funding the Sea Island Scenic Parkway Coalition's plan promised to be a more difficult proposition. The merchants' group, the Lady's Island Business and Professionals Association, was deeply divided on whether widening U.S. 21 to five lanes was in their financial interest; some of them stood to benefit directly and others feared that opposing the Good Ole Boys might be bad for business.For their part, the hundred or so African-American families whose community would be divided by the new highway were generally people of enthusiasm, but also of limited means.How could we get the money to pay Ken Driggers for an alternative plan? Finally we decided we'd try to get the county government to fund it. There was no assurance that if the county ended up favoring a design that was at variance with the highway commission's that the commission would yield to the county.But that was a problem for a later day.Now we needed a spark to light a fire under the county council,a Sam Adams to stage a Boston Tea Party. Here was the opportunity for the extremists to play their traditional role.The best carpenter in Beaufort is a guy named Howard Mills. Howie sailed into town on his cutter, The Bear, in 1988, and stayed, never once cutting off his beard and ponytail. He is so good with wood that he can pick his jobs and write his own ticket, both of which he does with thorough independence. He grew up in San Diego, so he had seen the future and he knew it wasn't pretty. Moreover, Howie lived on St. Helena Island, so he rode U.S. 21 virtually every day.Shortly before the county council was to consider the matter, Howie hit upon a simple scheme. He got a roll of orange plastic surveyor's marking tape, and late one night he drove along a particularly fragile portion of the highway and marked every huge live oak tree within a hundred yards. After wrapping tape around perhaps a dozen majestic oak trees, he drove home.The next morning the marked trees were the talk of Beaufort. People said they "had no idea the road was going to be so big, that so many live oaks would have to come down." It was, of course, assumed that the highway commission's surveyors had put up the markings. That afternoon, when questioned by a reporter, the commission's spokesman denied their having had anything to do with it; and once he'd denied their involvement, the commission couldn't very well send crews out to take the ribbons down. So the orange ribbons stayed and the line in the sand was drawn. The County Council said they'd fund the Palmetto Conservation Foundation's study. Our plan would become their plan.Now we waited, it seemed forever.The Carteret Street Association's plan was completed first. It called for historic-looking streetlamps, new brick crosswalks, andyoung trees, all of which would have to be torn up if the road were widened.Up in Columbia the highway commission was miffed that the county council had hired an independent consultant to second-guess them. The highway commissioner who represented Beaufort was a neighbor of mine in Beaufort, former lieutenant governor W. Brantley Harvey. Brantley, as he is known throughout Beaufort, is the son of a prominent politician, and he was also one of the two lead partners in the biggest law firm in Beaufort. A true son of the South, he is a wonderfully articulate genteel Southern gentleman, with a fiery tenseness evident just below the surface.At the time--things have changed--Brantley, in effect, ran the department for the seven-county district he represented on the commission, and he was determined to five-lane U.S. 21 out to the ocean.Small towns being what they are, I began receiving phone calls from strangers, who would recite what they knew of Brantley's real estate interests along U.S. 21. His plan, as they described it to me, was classic Good Ole Boy stuff. The former lieutenant governor and big lawyer in town gets a political appointment to the highway commission, and then reshuffles the deck of improvements so that the one on top happens to be the one that will improve his own property. That's what they told me. I never knew whether it was true. Those who went to look at the deeds found the properties owned by limited liability corporations with nondescript names.Ken Driggers cajoled traffic count information out of the highway department and hired a traffic engineer to analyze the data. He held several public informational meetings, all raucous affairs. He solicited comments from all the local governments.And he met privately with many of the local elected officials. After all that, he unveiled the county's plan: three-lane sections in shopping areas, some four-lane divided parkway sections out in the country, and some intersection improvements in the two-lane sections--particularly on St. Helena Island. With the county's draft plan in hand he embarked on another round of raucous meetings.The pro-development interests were often but by no means exclusively represented by Red Mitchell, who owned the Texaco filling station and convenience store across the street from the 1830s two-story store. Red got his name either from his red hair or because of the way his face flushes when he becomes agitated. Red's family were tomato farmers, but as the county grew they had gone into building and land development, and now owned some large undeveloped tracts. Red, then in his forties, was in touch with many of the landowners along the corridor, and their position was clear: "There's going to be progress and development on Lady's and St. Helena Islands. People have invested their money here. We don't want to infringe on anyone else's rights, and we don't want anyone infringing on ours. We have waited long enough for this road. Let's not turn it down and have the money go to some other county's road project. This is our tax money, finally a little of it coming back home to benefit us. The development has begun. The government has encouraged it. You can't stop it. If the government tries to limit our rights to improve our land, it's a 'taking' and the government will never get out of court alive."Arguing for cultural preservation were a half dozen African-American community leaders, but let me characterize Ernestine Atkins as the spokesperson for the group. Ernestine grew up in what is known around Beaufort as a family compound: fivehouses sprinkled between oaks and palmetto trees and lined up along the mile-wide St. Helena Sound on twenty of the most pristine acres in America. Ernestine is a diminutive, soft-spoken, and immensely cheerful but resolute lady in her fifties. To put food on the table, she runs a literacy program in which she goes into the homes of illiterate families and reads to the parents and children.Ernestine Atkins's position was as follows: "Eustis is our community. This is where we grew up. Eustis is where our fathers and their fathers grew up. It is, God willing, where our children and their children will grow up too. But it is a fragile place and an expressway with fast food businesses strung along it will change the way we live forever. Our children won't be able to cross the new road. Lady's Island will be divided, and that will be the end of Eustis as the community it is and has been."Taking a third, the environmentalist, position would be Elayne Scott, who ran an art gallery on the ground floor of the 1830s building, where she liked to host fundraisers for liberal causes such as the admission of women to the Citadel. An effusive personality, Elayne opposes on principle, for examples, all billboards, tree-cutting, and asphalt on St. Helena and elsewhere. Her position was this: "The Eustis Community and St. Helena Island are national treasures and great places to live. Crabs and shrimp swim freely in our waters. We can pick oysters and bring them home to our tables. People know one another. They help one another. Don't destroy all that we enjoy together so that a few can make some money. How much do they need? Tell us, we'll pass the hat."As the controversy crept into its second year, the interest groups got better organized and dug in deeper. There was no easy way for the county council to duck the issues, yet it stillwasn't clear there would be any muscle to their final recommendation, whatever it would be.In all controversies there is a seminal moment: a meeting where excessive hypocrisy or greed is displayed, or a demonstration where moderate people behave immoderately. These are the moments that turn around crowds, and public opinion, and elected officials.In September 1992 the county held a public meeting in the Lady's Island Middle School's auditorium to explain the two plans and their decision-making process. Those of us who opposed the widening decided it was time we played every card in our hand. So we made up a petition addressed to the South Carolina Ethics Commission calling for an investigation of Commissioner Harvey's dual role as highway commissioner and landowner of two tracts along U.S. 21. (Because of the blind corporations, we didn't even know for sure that he had an interest in the land.) We couldn't find anyone courageous enough to pass the petition, so we just left a dozen or so copies of it on a table outside the auditorium, hoping that a few courageous folks might sign it.Several hundred people from all sides of the issue showed up for the meeting. On his way into the auditorium, Commissioner Harvey read the petition and very shrewdly picked up the whole stack and put them in his briefcase. But he couldn't be sure he had them all, and the accusation made him angry. It is never good in public life to become angry, especially when you are about to address hundreds of people. While it is sometimes beneficial to appear to be shocked or outraged, it is a big mistake to let actual anger, which is self-indulgent, overwhelm your tactical savvy.When it came his turn to speak, Brantley launched, in obvious anger, into a defense of himself and the merits of the widening.In an enormous public relations blunder, he concluded by denying any wrongdoing. While the matter had been whispered about for a year, no one had said anything publicly. No one had the guts. And they probably weren't going to get them. So most of the people in the room were hearing about Brantley's purported conflict for the first time, and from the accused man himself. It was Nixon's "I am not a crook" line, and it played just as poorly.Commissioner Harvey's public defense of himself became the lead of the reporters' stories the next day. The meeting became the seminal moment. As the commissioner sought to recover over the following weeks, he became uncharacteristically conciliatory, saying, in effect, "I believe the road should be widened to five lanes all the way out to the beach. If we don't do it now we'll regret it later. People will die because the ambulances and fire trucks couldn't get through the traffic. But I understand there is not unanimity on the design and so, as your highway commissioner, I'll support whatever recommendation the county council makes."It was the right thing to say, and to this day I applaud Brantley for saying it. It also broke new ground in South Carolina, where highway commissioners had up until then been judge and jury of the merits of the highway projects proposed for their districts.The county council was thus empowered to make the final call. And so we turned our attentions upon them as they grappled with the daunting task of designing a controversial highway by committee in open session.Our position was unchanged, and we lobbied aggressively for it: no widening on St. Helena Island except the improvement of a handful of intersections.In meetings with another of my neighbors, Beth Grace, the county council vice chairman who represented the Beaufort City district, we set our strategies and sought to line up the votes. Some council members were committed one way or another, but the swing votes were waiting to hear the debate. When we saw that we'd have to pick up some of the votes in the room, we knew what we had to do.Nina Morais worked on St. Helena Island doing community preservation work. She knew the preachers and the deacons and the members of the auxiliaries and boards of elders at the churches there. Nina, a tireless organizer, was dead set against the wider road, and she made it her mission to make sure that whenever the county council met to discuss the road, the room would be packed with the church-going ladies and gentlemen of St. Helena Island.Nina went down to the print shop and got one thousand small yellow bumper stickers printed up: "No 5 Lanes on St. Helena." Some people put them on their cars, but they were really for the meetings. As soon as Beth let me know when and where the next council meeting would be, I called Nina. Nina called the pastors and arranged for the church buses to convey the ladies and gentlemen there. When each bus pulled into the government parking lot, Nina would step aboard, give a little speech of thanks, and pass out her stickers. Then the ladies and gentlemen would affix the stickers prominently to their clothing, and file silently into the meeting room. To my knowledge, none of them ever said a single public word. They simply filed in, listened politely, and filed out. But the outcome could not have been the same without their powerful presence.After two years of struggle, Council in a series of votes finallyexpressed its will. There would be no five lanes on St. Helena Island, and the rest of the project was scaled down to manageable proportions.The highway commission had been defeated. And something else had happened. The people of Beaufort County had begun to perceive that life was changing in our part of the world. Once the poorest county in South Carolina, ours was now the richest. They began to openly wonder whether all growth was good growth. A huge housing development twenty miles away, Sun City Hilton Head, would soon act as a catalyst for supercharged growth for that part of the county. Together, the U.S. 21 controversy in the northern part of the county and the introduction of Sun City to the south were a wake-up call. If the present residents wanted to preserve their genteel and personal way of life, they now knew they would have to take a role in their local government.
Why do I tell this story? Because the best way to get ready for your first campaign is by getting something done before you run. Getting something done requires working with others. This is where your political supporters will come from. I hadn't known that at the time, and my involvement in the road widening issue had nothing to do with some imagined future run for political office. At the time I would have told you I couldn't be elected.But five years later, when I ran for mayor, Beth Grace wrote a key letter endorsing my candidacy, and her daughter Katherine worked in my campaign day-to-day. Ernestine Atkins told her friends in the city's African-American community that they could trust me. Nina Morais helped draft letters to the editor for people who wanted to say nice things about me, but who wereself-conscious about their writing abilities. The Carteret Street merchants gave me campaign contributions and talked up my candidacy. The historic preservation community knew me and trusted me and supported me with their checkbooks. These people became my core supporters--because we had come from somewhere together.Copyright © 2004 by Bill Rauch
Meet the Author
Bill Rauch, who is up for reelection in November as mayor of Beaufort, South Carolina, was the co-author of Ed Koch's two books, Mayor and Politics.
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