Adobe Stock
Ideally, elected office should not become a major part of your identity. The best public servants have the best motives. They will be unselfish, willing to sacrifice, open-minded, considerate of their colleagues, staff, and especially their constituents.

“How do I position myself to run for public office?” That’s a question I receive frequently, especially from young people.

Why are they so keen on running for public office? There’s not one answer, of course. The common factors seem to be a desire to serve, the feeling that they can make a difference, they have leadership ability and they believe the policies and politics they espouse will obtain better results than the status quo. Typically, those who seek public office have plenty of self-confidence; some are beyond confident — they’re flat out egotistical. The final catchall motivation is simply that they want to play in the game of politics. Like being movie stars and trial lawyers, public officials have been glamorized. Our society is obsessed with politics and officeholders, so it’s no surprise that many young people are drawn to it.

I try to persuade these ambitious young people to think of elected office only as a means to serve their fellow citizens and not to gratify their vanity or advance their prospects. After all, it’s public “service.” I urge them to get on their city recreation board or run for the school board where there is always demanding work to be done. Serving on the planning commission isn’t popular and always requires wisdom and courage. This counsel seems to separate the sheep from the goats because the ones in it for themselves don’t want to labor in the trenches. They seek the bright lights of publicity and the levers of power.

Ideally, elected office should not become a major part of your identity. The best public servants have the best motives. They will be unselfish, willing to sacrifice, open-minded, considerate of their colleagues, staff and especially their constituents. They will be principled but not slavishly partisan. They will avoid the temptations of pride and vanity. They will give their best … then step aside for someone else to serve. Washington’s and Lincoln’s lives are studies in unselfish service. They restrained their ambition and gave their all to their nation. Washington’s humility has become a parable. At the close of the Revolutionary War, Washington refused to be elevated to king. George III of England said, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."

Political office should not become a career or livelihood. Usually, we are not well served by professional politicians. While elected federal office requires full-time service, as do a handful of state positions, even then, officeholders should serve for a few years and return to civilian life. Before his election as governor, Gov. Scott Matheson had never held office. He served two creditable terms and walked right back into his private life. He left us a fine example.

Utah’s Legislature draws criticism and jokes, but our legislators do great work. In 33 working days, they balance a nearly $17 billion budget with lots of rainy day savings, address hot-button issues like medicinal marijuana, teen suicide, school safety, air quality, transportation, education and a hundred other important matters.

I staunchly believe that Utah enjoys good government because our legislators are part time and ill-paid. After each session, they go back to their offices, shops, clubs and churches where they mix with their constituents, where they must explain and defend their votes. They aren’t insulated. They don’t have staff or bodyguards. They are just plain folk like the rest of us. Because they must live with the laws they pass and among the people who will be affected by those laws, they get plenty of feedback and direction.

6 comments on this story

Lincoln, Washington, Churchill, Gandhi and a few others seemed “called” to serve at the most critical junctures in history. But they’re the rare case. For the rest of us, when we feel inclined to put our name forward for nomination and election, we ought first to conclude that we want to serve rather than get noticed, that we will promote beneficial policies, that we will represent our constituents, and after serving for a time, we will step down so someone else can offer what they have.

Public service is a privilege and a trust. Our job as voters is to find the candidates who will approach their office that way.