Sometime in the mid 90’s I decided I wanted to get more involved with my community. I was living in my home town, a rural community of about 15,000 at that time. It is a very progressive, liberal town with a prestigious college. I was looking through the local paper one day and noticed an ad for a new member for the Design Advisory Board. The DAB was an advisory board to the City Council that dealt with businesses and city ordinances. It sounded interesting so I picked up an application at city hall. The application called for experience that I didn’t have. So I started trying to figure out how I was going to get this position. I decided to make a game of it. The goal was the board position. But how to do it with no experience? I was going to have to put some real thought into this.
I was going to have to think like someone in government. Time to put my cynical side to work. The first question was, who do I know in city government? No one, was the answer. Or did I? I knew who people were in government positions but I didn’t “know” them. After thinking about this for awhile I remembered something my Grandfather told me. He worked for the college for 50 years as the caretaker of the football stadium, track and field and sports equipment. He told me that our Mayor, before he was elected, used to come and jog on the track at the college. He said that he got to know him and thought he was a nice man. So now a new question arose. How do I make that relationship work for me?
I did some digging and found out that the Mayor made the appointments to the committees. So I called him. I wondered if I could work it into the conversation who my Grandfather was, would he be the kind of politician who would fall for something like that. I wouldn’t have a lot of respect for him if he did, but I thought I would see if it would work. Besides, it was a game right? A challenge.
He was pleasant on the phone, I told him why I was calling and gave him my name. “Armstrong,” he said. “Armstrong, are you related to old Steven Armstrong?” I couldn’t believe he had given me an opportunity so easily. “No, I’m not,” I said, “but you may remember my Grandfather from your jogging days at the college.” I told him my Grandfathers name and said that he told me how much he liked our future mayor. “Well how about that. So you’re his Grandson. You know, I really liked him and I’m awful sorry he’s gone. I’m going to appoint you to that committee.” Well, what do you know, I thought.
What I did seems kind of underhanded, but then I thought, if he’s going to allow himself to be played like that, well, why shouldn’t I go for it? I served on that board for about 4 years, making it to vice chairmen. One of the things that was reenforced in my mind while serving was that it’s all in who you know. If we told a business owner that they needed a certain number of parking spaces or certain types of signage or lighting, and they didn’t want to do that, they could go to someone they knew (if they knew someone) on the city council and get a variance. That’s all it took. You have to know someone. It seems to me, that is how most government works. If you know someone, you’re in. If you’re one of the people who doesn’t have connections, you get squat! It doesn’t seem right somehow. But I used that method and found out how well it works, Crazy, isn’t it?