Opinion: Service vs. Celebrity

I’ve been posing for a lot of photos lately.

It’s just a thing that happens when you run for office. My kids sometimes roll their eyes at how much they’re seeing mom’s picture these days, and I struggle with it a bit myself: It’s a sudden low-level celebrity, and at this point it feels very undeserved. I know it’s part and parcel of a political campaign, so I’ve made uneasy peace with it, but it has also made me consider the power, and danger, of the “photo op”— and the important difference between striking a pose and getting real work done.

I’ve worked demanding full-time jobs my entire adult life. And I anticipate that elected office will be even more demanding. Our communities are staring down some really difficult challenges — statewide inequality in economic growth and opportunity, irresponsible and unsustainable increases in government spending, a continuing opiate crisis and debilitating healthcare expenses for families and businesses. It’s going to take the dedicated, full-time effort of our public servants and policymakers to find solutions and help implement improvements.

I’m ready to work hard for the 2nd Hampden District—it’s why I’m running. And I expect that every elected official should bring the same readiness to work every day. Every voter should expect that as well – your taxes are paying for it.

Unfortunately, the current state of public service in Western Mass. is too much striking of poses and not enough real work solving problems. Whenever I pick up a newspaper, watch the news or scan my Facebook feed, I’m greeted with a series of photo ops: politicians in suits standing and smiling, usually in front of a building project or with a group of other politicians. The word “support” often shows up, meaning: “By posing for this picture, I am lending my support to this organization or effort.”

It’s a form of easy credit-taking, yet if you do a little homework, you often find that those posing politicians have done little or nothing to actually help the people or organizations they’re “supporting.” I could pose for a photo outside Fenway Park (and I have!), but that doesn’t mean I helped the Red Sox win a game or a championship.

Certainly, public service brings a certain obligation to put on the right public face, to show up for the photo, to cut the ribbon, to march in the parade. These are traditions of our democracy and I respect them.

But at my most idealistic—and I’m not nearly ready to let go of my idealism— I would hope that politicians would be cutting ribbons and taking photo credit only when they had a hand in the project’s success, when they can point to their legislative good deeds that helped make this improvement or service possible. It seems to me that politicians should strive to be famous for their accomplishments in service to their communities—not for being politicians.

To achieve truly good government, every photo op needs to be balanced by a healthy dose of behind-the-scenes hard work. That means showing up for votes and responding to constituents’ calls and concerns. Doing the homework on policy and administration to truly understand the issues and the merits of possible solutions. On these important duties, I encourage voters to examine the records of those who currently represent them. If I’m given the privilege to serve, I fully expect you will do the same for me, and hold me to account.

Margaret Thatcher famously said, “If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.” Too much of our current democracy runs on Facebook “likes.” Staging photo ops is easy; it’s the hard work of responsible and effective government that our communities really need and should look for in an elected official.

Allison Werder is a Longmeadow resident and the former president of MassLive Media. She is currently a candidate for State Representative in the 2nd Hampden District which includes Monson, Hampden, 3/4’s of East Longmeadow and Longmeadow.