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Column: Lessons for Serving and Governing

An inaugural column.

We have just had a City Council election. We have two new members (Silberberg and Chapman) and two newish members (Lovain and Wilson) as well as three experienced members returning to the Council (Euille, Pepper and Smedberg). Congratulations to each of you on your victory. And thank you to every person who ran — putting yourself before the public is valuable to the discourse and the choices you allowed the voting public to have.

Having served for nine years on the council, and now having been off council longer than I was on it, I have some observations, mostly to our new members, but to the others as well.

First, I know what a heady experience an election is — you have an awesome opportunity to persuade your colleagues and the public on subjects important to you and the community. You each want to make a difference. You also have a relentlessly daunting responsibility in that your public duties will never be done; there is no rest from the obligation to educate yourself about the next 15 complex issues and to discern your own position on these (many of which you may have little or no interest). Initially, you will want to absorb all the information yourself and make all your own decisions; but at some point you will realize that there are not enough hours in the day, and you will come to rely on certain colleagues, staff or friends on whose lead you will trust for guidance on many issues. Quickly identify those people you trust.

Second, remember that you were elected by the people, not your council colleagues, who probably did not vote for you, even though you are all of the same party. Nonetheless, if you want to serve those who did vote for you, then never forget that your colleagues are critical to your being able to accomplish what you believe is important. Each of you should build alliances with every other member of council — not permanent or exclusive alliances — but a matrix of overlapping alliances. You will be with one group on one issue and another group on another issue. Every member, regardless of how distant he or she may seem to you, will be an ally at some point on some issue. Try to build permanent goodwill with each member and have no permanent adversaries. When possible, talk with your colleagues in advance. I am saying all this because, even though I enjoyed being happy contrarian — a “lone wolf" doing what I wanted in any moment — I could have been more effective if I had built better alliances in advance. Just making speeches to your colleagues in council meetings will not advance your goals.

Third, and this is something I learned from David Speck, what you ran on is important, mostly during the election and for some short time thereafter. Soon you will be facing new challenges — ones that none of you will have anticipated; and they will be hard issues. We elect people not just for their "platforms" or their ideological foundations, but for their judgment and character. We are counting on you to think through and deal with totally unanticipated issues and then to sort out the policy choices in the context of a messy, democratic process.

Lonnie C. Rich served on the Alexandria City Council from 1991 to 2000. He is a law partner in Rich Rosenthal Brincefield Manitta Dzubin & Kroeger, LLP.