By Oscar Wolfe
As some of you may know, I am rather interested in politics. I have been following the presidential race very closely. But there are more politicians than just the national superstars. The mayor of my city, Golden Valley, for instance is extremely involved in our community. He has done things from building bike trails to creating a political group for teenagers (which I can’t wait to be in when I’m a teenager). I had no idea that the mayor gets to approve or decline licenses for practically anything. I was able to interview him about what it’s like to be a mayor and a lobbyist. I hope you enjoy our interview with Mayor Shep Harris.
Can you explain what you do as mayor?
Three Tuesdays out of the month we have city council meetings, and I run those meetings. But then I do a lot of work behind the scenes with city council members, and with staff. The mayor in Golden Valley is not like the President of the United States. It’s not like I can say something, and then it happens. It’s called a council manager system. City council works as a team with the city manager. We’ll set a big vision of what we want to happen and it’s up to the city manager.
What type of decisions is the city council making?
Our city council can hire and fire the city manager. The rest is up to city manager— police, officers, fire chief. But if they need a new aerial bucket truck to fix utility lines, the city can’t just write a check. They have to get the city council’s approval to do it. We have city boards and commissions. There’s even a teen committee that we started a couple of years ago.
That leads right into my next question! How do kids and teens get involved? I know, community service. But what I was saying to my mom, was, if i volunteer, you get one volunteer. But if you give me the opportunity to do a speech about volunteering, you might get 100 volunteers. So for people who feel they could do a lot more by getting into politics rather than just community service…
Right, because you want to rule the world after you are president. So this is the beginning. It all starts in Golden Valley.
I’m working my way up the ladder.
What you could do for starters, is, the teen committee….pretty soon. It’s new, and just finding itself. It’s really to give feedback. Right now, we’re building a community center, and the feedback we’re hearing from the teens is, we don’t need a teen center within it—not cool. If you think there are programs we need to do—like an ultimate frisbee league—we want that feedback. We also have a human rights commission that makes us more aware about diversity issues, and we have two teen spots on that. That’s something to think about in the future.
But don’t put yourself down saying you’re just one person and need to get more involved. We have an ordinance that allows people to raise chickens in Golden Valley. The only reason it really happened is because we had a young brother and sister come to the open forum before a city council meeting. They told us they wanted to raise chickens and pointed out that other cities around us allow it. The city researched it for 10 months, and sure enough, we decided to go for it. So it doesn’t matter how old you are, you can call us or meet with us or come talk to us any time.
When you were a kid, did you do student council?
Yes. My parents’ friends called me Senator. They thought I should be a politician.
Do you like being mayor?
You can get a lot done at the local level. Even if it’s getting swings at a park that doesn’t have enough, you know that makes a big difference to the kids who live near that park. There are some fun things that I get to do, like going into schools and reading to students. Planting trees with a school on Arbor Day, going to ribbon cutting ceremonies. There are people who give this position a lot of respect. We’ve got a really good community.
Would you like to move up in politics?
Only if I think there is a need, and an opportunity. I’m not going to hold this job forever. Fresh blood is always good. So, politician’s answer: we’ll see.
You are also a lobbyist, so could you explain what you do?
Everyone thinks of lobbyists as guys getting out of limos with cigars hanging out of their mouths. You’ll hear things like, congressman so and so is in the pocket of this lobbyist. What we really do is educate legislators. They can’t know everything. What we say is: here’s a problem, here’s a proposed solution, will you support that? Or if not, what will you support, and can we find some compromise?
Would you ever lobby for things that you don’t believe in?
That’s a really good question. I chose very carefully where I work and who I work for. The place I work is actually at a law firm. I’m not a lawyer. But I work for the lobbying group within the law firm. And our law firm has a policy of not representing any tobacco interests—no companies that promote the sale, the use, the abuse of tobacco. This way, I never have to say to a legislator, “Smoking is not that bad for kids.” We’re a little entrepreneurial. We have to get clients. They don’t always come to us. So we can pick and choose who we want to represent.
What advice do you have for kids who want to go into politics?
Everything I ever learned about how to be an elected official, I learned from my Bar Mitzvah. Thank you notes. Look people in the eye. Saying please and thank you. Having that one-to-one relationship and connection. So I’d say, just keep learning. Have fun while you’re doing it. And don’t take yourself too seriously.