'None Of These Votes Are Easy': Learning The Ropes On City Council Veteran city councilman Ryan Coonerty offers this advice to newcomer Charles Johnson: get to know your colleagues, carry a business card and practice using giant scissors before the ribbon-cutting.
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'None Of These Votes Are Easy': Learning The Ropes On City Council

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'None Of These Votes Are Easy': Learning The Ropes On City Council

'None Of These Votes Are Easy': Learning The Ropes On City Council

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We're going to hear now from a political outsider who ran for office in 2016, won the election and has spent the first few months of this year learning on the job. His name is Charles Johnson.

CHARLES JOHNSON: Filled out the paperwork, entered my name, and 1,500 doors later, here I am.

CORNISH: Charles Johnson is a freshly minted city councilman in Baytown, Texas, population 76,000. He's wanted to run for office since he was a kid. Last year, he finally took a shot and won. So now Charles is stepping into the kind of job that's hard to prepare for. There's not much in the way of training. It's a paid position but just barely. He still works his job at a chemical plant. We caught up with Charles in January right after he was sworn in, and the weight of his new responsibilities - it started to sink in.

JOHNSON: I was speaking with my wife, and I explained it to her from the perspective of when you're pregnant for nine months, knowing that the baby's coming, but it's real when you hold the baby.

RYAN COONERTY: (Laughter) That's a perfect analogy.

CORNISH: That other voice is Ryan Coonerty. He's served nearly a decade on the city council in Santa Cruz, Calif. It's about the same size as Baytown, and the issues facing city governments are surprisingly universal - zoning regulations, pothole repair, parking restrictions; you name it. So to get some advice, Charles Johnson of Baytown sat down with Ryan Coonerty for our series Been There in which someone about to take a big step talks to someone who's already taken it.

JOHNSON: Do you remember your first day on the job and what it was like?

COONERTY: I certainly remember that oath of office, that moment where all of a sudden, you ran, campaigned, and then you're standing before your community with your hand in the air. And you know, you're upholding to some pretty high ideals to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and to really serve your community. And you realize it's quite an obligation you've undertaken, and it's humbling and inspiring and scary all at the same time.

JOHNSON: That is true. I had someone tell me that when I went up to my seat at the dais, they said the expression on my face was, wow, this is a lot.

COONERTY: (Laughter) You know what? I take that to be a good sign - when you have that wow expression. You know, you'll pretty quickly realize the folks who don't have that wow expression on their face are going to be the most difficult people to work with whether they agree with you or not because this job humbles you pretty quickly.

JOHNSON: What was your relationship like with your colleagues, and was it hard interacting with people who had more experience than you?

COONERTY: It is a challenging thing, and this is one of the things that's - you know, when you ran for office, it's an individual sport. You are out campaigning for yourself and trying to hit that one goal of just getting elected. Governing is a team sport, and it's a big, big change.

And so getting to know your colleagues - ask them to give you a tour of their districts, and they can point out to you what their schools are and where there are potholes and where the traffic backs up 'cause they're going to know their district in a way that you won't. And then when it comes for the board, you understand what's motivating them.

JOHNSON: OK. What's motivating them - I've never thought of it in those terms. Already I've had people recognize me in public. How did you manage that?

COONERTY: So somebody told me this when I first got elected - which was, when you go to the grocery store, buy your frozen food last...


COONERTY: ...Because people are going to stop you in the aisles, and they're going to want to talk to you, and your food will melt. Everything's going to take you a little bit longer 'cause people all have opinions. They'll want to bend your ear about this or that.

Always have your business cards on you, and don't be afraid when people are interrupting you and your family at a restaurant. Hand them a business card, and say, I'm with my family right now - be happy to talk with you. Email me or call me, and we'll make a time to meet 'cause otherwise people will just eat up your time.

And being in elective office is really fun and interesting for you. It's a challenge for your family. They didn't run for office, but now they're in the life, too, and you have to provide a little protection from them because it's going to be a long couple years if they have to carry that burden as well.

JOHNSON: I will most definitely keep that in mind. Did your relationships with people in your community change after you joined city council?

COONERTY: It did. Now, you - did you grow up in Baytown?

JOHNSON: Yes, I did.

COONERTY: OK, so - and I grew up in Santa Cruz. So one of the things that you experience is, you know, like, your old high school teachers are now your constituents, and you're dealing with them in a different way. And they'll have some issue that comes before the board.

And sometimes on really, really hot issues, people will make it as though your friendship or your reputation in the community will be forever ruined if you vote the wrong way. And now having been done this for 10 years, I see that, you know, you take a hard vote. People are mad. But then there's always another vote.

JOHNSON: OK, well, I actually received an email from someone about a building coming up across the street from their neighborhood, and this person put, please tell me that you care enough not to allow that to happen. And I was like, wow, they - they're really playing on my emotions on this one. I had to sit down a moment and think, are they really this passionate about it, or are they trying to use feelings and emotions to get me to see it specifically from their point of view?

COONERTY: Yeah. The most effective advocates will humanize it and really make you feel it. And you know, none of these votes are easy. If they were easy, it would have been decided by somebody at the building counter. So it's coming to you because it's hard. But the best thing you can do is making sure that you - that she understands, you know, when the public meetings will be, how she can participate. Even if you end up not voting with her, it gives her the opportunity to have her voice be heard, and that's part of your job.


COONERTY: Hey, Charles, there's one more thing I'd made a note to let you know. All the ceremonies - you think you're getting elected to pass this law or oppose this law, but all the ceremonies - the ribbon cuttings, the proclamations - those really matter to people. So making sure you're out recognizing and involving yourself in all those ceremonial things is really important.

JOHNSON: OK. We have a ribbon cutting coming up in a couple of days as a matter of fact. It's kind of special to me to attend a ribbon cutting. And I may not be the one cutting the ribbon or holding it but just to be in the picture.


JOHNSON: It was going to be a big deal for me, but now I know that other people are seeing it as a big deal, especially the restaurant owners.

COONERTY: Does your city have those giant scissors?


COONERTY: It's actually surprisingly tricky to cut things with those giant scissors, so make sure you practice once at the office before you go out there.

JOHNSON: (Laughter) OK.

COONERTY: You don't want to screw up somebody's big opening of their restaurant by not being able to actually cut the ribbon.


CORNISH: That was Ryan Coonerty, former city councilman and mayor of Santa Cruz, Calif. He now serves in Santa Cruz County Government. He was speaking to Charles Johnson just after Charles was sworn in to the city council in Baytown, Texas, back in January.


CORNISH: If you're about to go through a big change in life or you've been through one, we want to hear from you. That's how we found Ryan Coonerty. Email us at nprcrowdsource@npr.org with Been There in the subject line, and we may contact you for an upcoming segment.


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