Leading up to the 2006 mid-term elections when the Democratic Party regained majorities in both the House and Senate I was on the phone one evening with my friend, Christine Pelosi, when she asked me to share with her the rules of politics I follow.
Christine had been tireless over the year traveling across the nation conducting training sessions for Democratic candidates, political staff and volunteers. These trainings remain a key part of Democratic strategy and her book, Campaign Boot Camp: Basic Training for Future Leaders, has become a must read for those who want to win.
Christine’s question was an interesting one. I have spent my whole life working in politics and much of what I do is more second nature than a set of rules on a piece of paper for referral. What were my rules for succeeding in politics? Eventually, the answers came. I learned about politics and how to win from my father.
He was known as Big Daddy by nearly everyone. He stood at 6 foot 7, weighed in at over 330 pounds and wore a suit, cowboy hat and cowboy boots seven days a week. Jesse A. “Big Daddy” Strider was sheriff of Grenada County, Miss., for 24 years. Big Daddy lived out and taught a progressive brand of politics that was about doing and not talking.
With Christine’s encouragement and a lot of remembering I managed to put on paper, for referral, the basic rules he taught me. So, here it is, translating Big Daddy, rules for the campaign trail.
–“A pick up truck beats a Cadillac every day of the week out here in real America.” Translation: Don’t get fancy. Don’t get fancy with your words, with your plan or with your attitude. Folks are looking for one of them to lead.
–“Every tub has got to sit on its own bottom.” Translation: In the final analysis the candidate has to carry the day. The candidate is who the voters want to hear from. Only the candidate can ultimately speak for the candidate.
–“If you’re driving down the highway and see a car coming toward you in your lane then you’re going to change lanes.” Translation: Don’t get in the way of your friends. Stay out of other people’s races. Stay in your lane and don’t bring undue criticism and opposition by being nosy or getting involved where you shouldn’t.
–“If you come up on an old yella dog that is barking the word ‘God’ then let him bark.” Translation: Don’t challenge, denigrate or dismiss the faith of anyone. A person’s faith represents the core, the essence of who they are. It’s one of their most personal choices. You tear that person down if you tear down their faith.
–“Be careful what you say about someone, you’re probably talking to their cousin.” Translation: You’re probably talking to their cousin.
–“Preach it three times. Before you do it, when you’re doing it and after you do it.” Translation: It’s not just enough to believe it or even do it. People must know where you stand on an issue. They must know your actions. Just doing something without getting the news out is a waste of good time. I run across people running for office all the time who have done good things but no one knows. They’re even indignant that others don’t know of their good work. Well, they lose no matter how much time they waste being indignant. Tell your story and tell it often.
–“No one ever had to apologize for something they did not say.” Translation: Don’t talk if you don’t have too. If it doesn’t help you, remain quiet. If you’re unsure if it helps you, keep your mouth shut. You must know for certain what you’re saying and why. Don’t take chances saying something you likely can’t fix.
–“The person with the khaki pants, sweaty shirt and old baseball cap, driving the old farm truck is probably on the local bank board. The slick guy with the pin stripped suit, silk tie, tasseled shoes and new car probably charged his clothes and is, more than likely, a couple of payments behind on his car.” Translation: Big Daddy was never impressed with those who put on airs. Being flashy was artificial to him. He wasn’t against spending money and living good, but he was against anyone who seemed to take pleasure in using material items to show off or feel superior to others. We all know that flashiness is a waste of time in politics.
–“Take the blame. Be responsible.” Translation: Don’t pass the buck. Stand up and take it when things go bad.
–“Spread the credit” Translation: And when things go good, let people know who all was involved. Share the wealth and it will be returned to you over and over again.
–“Don’t kick a person when they’re down.” Translation: When people are at their lowest, no matter what they did, no matter how bad, it is not the time to pile on. Show them attention, love and support. This was Big Daddy’s philosophy not just in politics but for how the inmates were to be treated at his jail. Not your normal take on how a Mississippi sheriff may run things. And he kept running his jail and sheriff’s department because his county would give him 70-75 percent of the vote nearly every time he was on the ballot.
–“Remember your raising.” Translation: Cissy Ross Pierce was moving to South Korea with her soldier husband who was being stationed there. There was a going away party on our farm with all the area families in attendance. At the end of the party, Big Daddy hugged Cissy and simply said “You remember your raising while you’re over there.” I think it would bode well for all of us if we took time every now and then to remember our raising.
There you have it–Big Daddy translated. I don’t think Big Daddy considered himself a post-modern philosopher, but what he taught and lived is as relevant today, in an age of blogospheres, Internet social networking and micro-targeting, as it was in the last century. It’s about building true relationships, sharing your heart, playing fair but tough and keeping your eye on the ball. It’s about winning with integrity.
Burns Strider was senior adviser and director of faith-based outreach for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. He is a founder of Eleison Group, a consulting firm that helps political candidates, businesses and non-profit organizations engage with people of faith.