Purpose, transformation

The Accidental Politician

How a life changing diagnosis woke me up to the power of community and our individual responsibility to protect it.

Image Credit: John Mark Arnold / Unsplash

It never fails that around election season the natural sense of connectivity we have as humans seems to get murky for a few days (or weeks, or months, depending on the office being debated).

For most of my life I observed this process without saying much. As a moderate fiscal conservative with progressive social views I told myself that neither party really spoke to me. So, for the most part I sat back and listened to comments such as “all politicians are crooked” and “nothing ever will change, government is corrupt.” I snuck out of those conversations, turned off the news, and existed in my bubble of things I could control. It felt better there. I ran my growing bakery business in my small city (an entrepreneurial venture that still thrives today). I mothered, and was a community member. I gave to charity and helped the people I knew when and where I could. I avoided mention of politics whenever possible, on Facebook and certainly at social functions.

‘Politics’ always seemed like it brought out bad behavior across the board. I didn’t want to contribute to that.

A couple of years ago a series of events popped that bubble, opening my eyes to the world around me.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Within a day of ending my marriage of 14 years.

One might think this an inauspicious beginning to a career in politics but I was inspired by how my community rallied around me. I was struck by how a community could be so invested in the well being of a singular person and her children as I worked my way through cancer recovery. It spoke to the values of my town and the way it’s people wanted to live, work, and raise their families. I was having to figure out some massive changes all at the same time, a lot for one person even with a personal support network., My community picked up pieces to see me through.

In reality even with all of that going on I was lucky to catch my cancer early and I am a survivor. Nevertheless, I was shaken awake, my bubble had been burst. I couldn’t help but take a second look at why people were so passionate about the topics that came up in political conversation. Values, way of life, tradition and progress, community support, I had seen it all in action. Politics talks about the topics that matter. If I shifted my thinking I could see past the conflict to the debate, engagement, and investment. And how important it is to protect our communities by getting involved in their politics.

Once I was healthy, the idea of service through personal mission became a persistent thought in the back of my mind.

A few people mentioned the idea of running for City Council in my town of 10,000. I initially brushed off that idea – me, politics? That’s funny. One day in January 2018, I was brooding over some dishes in the back of my bakery and said out loud

“Ok God, if you want me to run for office, you’ll have to send me a yes or no answer here”. My phone dinged.

I walked over to it, and laughed at a news alert that had just popped up about a recent increase in women running for office. I decided it was a fairly clear “yes” to my question, and even though I was terrified of the unknown, I moved forward with the paperwork. I was honored to be elected that November, and an accidental politician was born (although I much prefer the term public servant, because the word “politics” still makes me involuntarily shudder at times).

As I look back at my first year as an elected official, I can do it with a smile. I made it a goal to learn all that I could so I jumped in with both feet. I have had one on one meetings with a lot of people to gather different perspectives and ask questions. I have gone to trainings and met a lot of people who can answer questions about the legislative process if I don’t have the answer in front of me. And I have found I bring a fresh perspective to my City Council, I have been able to contribute back to my community in year one. I still run my business and I have negotiated flexibility so that I can attend city meetings that are critical to boards I support. I’m making it work, supported by my bakery staff and community. You might be surprised at what you can make work, too.

Three Tiers of Government include Federal, State, and Local County and City. Local Government is where most decisions affecting your community get made.
Voting in your local election has a huge impact on decisions that get made in your community. Running for office in your city or county has even more impact – and it’s easier than you think.

If you think of our government as a pyramid structure, with federal government at the top, state government below that, and then city and/or county government at the bottom, most of the services we receive as taxpayers happen at a local level. The President of the United States is not making decisions about your property tax rate, your utilities bill, or the future impact of economic development in your area – those decisions are made by your local legislators. Local elections receive very little attention and face low voter turnout, yet what happens on a local level impacts the greatest change .

You have time to be a working professional and also serve in office. On our City Council, four of eight members have full-time day jobs. It requires some extra planning and organization but your fresh perspective could be exactly what your local government needs to function at its highest level.   

“It’ll be too expensive to campaign.

“I don’t have time.”

Fair concerns, and one I had as well. Then I discovered that –

  • Campaign signs can be fairly inexpensive (thank you, internet printing companies!)
  • Social media spreads your message quickly and is a God-send for those of us with limited time. I was able to get my message out through shared networks, one sparsely-attended public forum, and an election feature in the local newspaper.
  • Many swear by door-to-door campaigning, but I think many people find that irritating. Let’s consider that optional.

In terms of time investment, that varies based on the position and your community’s needs. Most official Council meetings are once or twice a month, and past that, you generally can choose where to invest your time according to what is most important. Just like in your personal life you can’t be everywhere at once so focus on topics that can have the most positive impact to the people you represent. Your community.

I have found my side gig actually inspires me to do greater things in my career as a whole, and it has improved my time management skills. I have learned to prioritize and balance the various areas of my life – for that reason alone it has been worth every moment of occasional craziness.

If you have any interest in getting more involved, the best thing you can do is start attending your local Council, Commission or Fiscal Court meetings. Meet the people in charge and learn the issues facing your community. Also, if you aren’t interested in serving in an elected position, most cities also have a number of commissions requiring volunteer commitment. Are you passionate about historic preservation? Tourism? Infrastructure development? There are boards for each of these things in my town. In order to make decisions, these boards need a diverse variety of perspectives. If we do not get new people with fresh ideas, decisions will be made by a very small group of people who have likely served for a while. The “good-ol-boy” system develops for reasons – cronyism becomes rampant when there isn’t a pool of qualified candidates. If your community leadership resembles this model, why not add value to the conversation and attempt to be part of the solution.

Steve Jobs said, “those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do.” If you are unhappy about the world around you be bold, be brave, and step into your power. Help bring about the change you want to see in the world.

Accidental politicians (or writers, or speakers, or entrepreneurs) do exist, and we are out here learning and growing and asking questions and making impacts. Yet I’d say our existence is anything but accidental. We were just the ones open to the possibility that any citizen has the ability to change the world, even just a small corner of it, with our voice. And if government isn’t your thing? That’s totally fine, there are so many ways to share your wisdom with the world. Find what sparks you and take small steady steps in that direction (or even big leaps, anyone who knows me will tell you that’s more my style). Invest in the conversations that matter, invest in your community and the people around you. If we all contribute our own unique voice at a local level imagine the difference we might make.

About The Author: Andrea Essenpreis is the owner of Q&A Sweet Treats in La Grange, Kentucky, as well as chair of the Economic Development Committee of the La Grange City Council. She’s passionate about sharing what she’s learned with the world through writing (find her on Medium) and speaking. 

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