On the day of Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003, the New York Times published an editorial from Patriots coach Bill Belichick titled “O.K., Champ, Now Comes the Hard Part.” In it, he imparts the wisdom learned from his previous Super Bowl victories to the winning coach of the day’s big game.
With New Bedford’s election season and inauguration behind us, and the first meetings of the newly seated City Councilors and School Committee members ahead, I thought it an opportune time to pass on some of the lessons I have learned over my last eight years in office.
I’m certainly not Belichick’s equivalent — I haven’t even won a single Super Bowl — but I did win a citywide election before I was old enough to drink to celebrate it, and I was re-elected convincingly during one of the most tumultuous eras in New Bedford schools’ history. I served in public office through the entirety of my 20s and lived to tell about it. Finding myself now just a private citizen and New Bedford taxpayer, I have a vested interest in the success of our new officials, and a few pieces of unsolicited advice to share:
Enjoy the limelight but be careful what you wish for.
You’ve done the hard work of running a winning campaign. You’ve broken through with thousands of people and earned their votes. You’re front-page news. The phone rings a lot more. Where are all these friend requests coming from? You check the mail and find congratulatory cards from public officials you didn’t realize knew your name. How did they get your address? It’s easy to feel accomplished, and heck, you deserve it! But realize this is incompatible with the humble tasks ahead of you: chipping away at the massive learning curve your new job comes with; establishing relationships with your colleagues; and figuring out how to jam these new obligations into your life. It’s only human to enjoy your newfound celebrity, but at some point soon, you’ll miss the bygone days of quickly navigating in and out of the grocery store anonymously.
Be good for goodness’ sake, not the votes or the vanity.
Campaigns use lots of jargon meant to convey complexity: strategic planning, development, revitalization, reform. But your most important duty is simple: help people navigate the bureaucracy of city government. In campaignspeak, “constituent services.” Helping people get a pothole filled, their trash picked up, or their child on a school bus, is among the best work you can do. Helping people out should produce the satisfying feeling of a job well done. That’s why you signed up for this, I hope. If you aren’t attentive to these requests, you might find your tenure short.
Given those circumstances, you may feel tempted to leverage these requests for help into opportunities to campaign. Got your tree trimmed? Perhaps you’d like a yard sign. Issues with water pressure? I’ve got a fundraiser coming up soon. Avoid this temptation with everything you’ve got. It’s poison. People see right through it. Doing good for the sake of it will take care of any ambitions you have anyway. If you can’t take pleasure in simply being of service, start plotting your exit strategy now.
People are going to hate your guts sometimes.
Despite all that good work you’re doing, I’m sorry to tell you that some people are going to hate your guts sometimes anyway. It’s never pleasant, but you’ll come to understand the counterintuitive reality that it’s a byproduct of taking a position, which is part of the job. Often, it means you’re sticking up for the silent majority — perhaps people who don’t even know you exist, let alone vote for you — but you have run afoul of those who follow this stuff closely and know how to tell you how they feel. So, you’ll log in to Facebook one day to discover your beloved schoolteacher unfriended you, or scroll past a thread with dozens of comments, each their own haymaker to the jaw. Some of the hardest moments come when you find yourself on the opposite side of your own supporters.
Do you do what you think is right, or discard that in favor of loyalty? I wish there were an easy answer. Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke gave a clue: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays you instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Hang in there.
Ground yourself with people and parts of the community that support you for you.
After getting heckled on the way to your car after the meeting, reading that nasty anonymous letter, or shutting the radio off after the 10th caller in a row questions your mental capacity, you might feel you have nowhere to turn, or that your days in office are surely over after voting the way you did. Fear not — none of it really matters. The illusion can be overwhelming, but the reality is that almost all the people who support you don’t care. In fact, they don’t even know. They voted for you because they liked what you stood for, because you knocked on their door, or they remember you shoveled their aunt’s driveway when you were 15. And they’ll vote for you again because you’re doing a good job.
After some of my toughest moments, I sought refuge at Saturday morning breakfasts with a few neighborhood leaders. We hold different political views and are separated by decades of age and experience, but even these plugged-in guys never held an unpopular stance against me, if they even knew about it at all.
When I thought the sky was falling, they reminded me the average city resident just saw another beautiful sunny day. This gave me the strength to get back out there to do good without feeling jaded. Find your Saturday breakfast (or join us).
Do the work required to have an opinion.
No one can be an expert at every topic, but part of your new job is doing the work required to have an opinion. This means reading a lot of stuff — the materials you’re given, and the materials you’re not given. You’ll have to do your own research, make phone calls, and consider all the angles. If you are on the Transportation Subcommittee, you should know there’s a bus driver shortage without anyone telling you. If you’re on the Committee on Fisheries, you should be able to sniff out a half-truth about the intersection of fishing and wind. You should be able to argue both sides of a given issue. Only then can you do the tough work of figuring out which one deserves your vote.
It is admittedly easier to not do any of this. It takes time. Most people won’t be able to tell. It makes it much easier to go along to get along with those trying to influence you when you don’t know any better. But if the officials making decisions don’t really know, who does? Know better, anyway. Those influencers will respect you for it, and trust they’ll still need your vote on something another day.
Remember why you did this.
You wanted to make a change, to do what’s best for your city, to uplift others. You care about people and see protecting them and improving their lives as the whole point. You want to do your part in fostering a healthy and vibrant community. Now you have the platform and all the potential to do it. You’ll only be as good as the relationships you develop, the habits you keep, and the work you do — seen or unseen
You’ll recognize that your true power is in your citizenship and engagement with civic life, not your nameplate at formal meetings. Your spot on the letterhead and honorific title are only good for gaining access to places others can’t go, and the ability to take them, or at least their perspectives, with you. There are few activities more fulfilling than serving the public, and few ways of doing it better than holding elected office. Whether it’s getting someone’s street plowed or accomplishing a long-term legislative goal, you have the privilege and opportunity to make a difference. We’re all rooting for you. Now, good luck.
Joshua Amaral is a former member of the New Bedford School Committee who did not seek re-election in 2021.
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