Exploring a Career in Politics

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By Natalie Pinkney, CDPC Assistant Director of Programming and Vice Chair, South Salt Lake City Council

It was a snowy Saturday in December 2017 when I found myself knocking on doors on South Temple Street and talking to voters about a candidate running in the primary election for the Utah State Legislature. It was by accident that I had even attended a canvassing training, but that whole day changed my life. I was captivated by the strategy of simply knocking on a door and asking, “what issues are important to you and your family?” and how it could impact the outcome of an election, ultimately impacting the laws created in our state. From that day forward, political canvassing was my favorite Saturday activity. It was my way of interacting with society by listening to issues people faced, something I quickly learned never happened, and how we could build a community to impact needed change. I spent the next couple of years canvassing for candidates as a volunteer, field manager, and campaign manager, losing some elections and winning others. My career path at the time was to continue working with candidates with the same mission as me, to change society. That work included finding candidates to run, advising candidates on their campaign strategy, and getting involved with my local political party. That plan, however, didn’t include me running for office myself and then winning, becoming the At-Large Council Member for South Salt Lake City.

Many women and people of color don’t see themselves in elected positions. Often, they have to be asked multiple times to run for office before even contemplating it. The combination of rarely seeing representatives that look like you and imposter syndrome can make a career in politics seem impossible. Even though I had encouraged other women to run, I hadn’t seen myself in the role due to age, lack of legislative experience, and the mere thought that it wasn’t my time. But what’s funny about those reasons is that they have nothing to do with running for office or even being elected. Now that I have been elected to the South Salt Lake City Council, serving as Vice Chair and representing the city at-large, I can reflect on common misconceptions about being in politics. What I’ve learned is this:

  • You can learn anything – Whether or not you know Robert’s Rules of Order or how a city water system works isn’t a prerequisite to run. Believing in people and having a passion for serving people are what’s most important. As an elected, you are a servant leader. That means you listen. You listen to your voters, city staff, fellow councilors, and heart. Good decisions are made with research and with a team. Anyone can learn about zoning, but not everyone leads with others in mind.
  • Your community is your compass – The community you serve is the most impactful part of this career.  The best reason to want a career in politics is to become a representative of your community. Not many people engage with politics because they have seen how much their voices or concerns are not prioritized. Whether you are elected or a campaign staffer, leading and decision-making should always include the voice of residents. Compassion and dignity often get left behind when people enter this industry, but they don’t have to if the community guides you.
  • Network, Network, Network – The most successful way to enter the world of politics is by getting to know as many people as possible. I started as a super enthusiastic volunteer for a campaign and was then promoted to campaign manager. My commitment to that race opened the doors of politics. Volunteer in a race, get involved with your local precinct or political party. You’d be amazed about how many people you can meet and impact. You can start small, and before you know it, you may be leading a race for Congress or even Governor. People fuel politics. Start in your neighborhood by attending a meeting or volunteering for a race.

Being in municipal government has allowed me to fulfill my dreams of impacting our society for the better. Change starts in our backyard, and we need more people invested in leaving our communities better than we found them. That can start with you. I hope to see you on the campaign trail!