Gordon Smith, a former Oregon senator, is no stranger to the strife of politics, but it is perhaps because of that very strife that he encourages others, particularly Latter-day Saints, to become involved in public service. “I am a witness to the fact that this world needs Latter-day Saints to excel in, not just medicine, not just law, not just business, not just the arts, but also in the art of government,” he said. He said the LDS values are the values that society, though without recognizing it, needs and admires.
At a recent Civic Engagement Leadership workshop, he cited a variety of public service opportunities, and reasons to take advantage of them, among them “a wonderful and rich life.” Smith said many LDS people will ask him what God cares about in government, and he responds by quoting Doctrine and Covenants 134, where God says that “the free exercise of conscience, the right to own property, and the protection of life is what God cares about in government. The rest is just stuff,” Smith said. “Remember those three principles, they were guiding principles for me and certainly can be for you.”
Whether you choose to be just an informed voter, or run for office, Smith provided helpful advice. To voters, he advised:
- Ask of your elected officials: “Can you tell me one issue in which you would be in the minority, about which you feel so strongly that you would be willing to loose your office for?” “If they can’t do that, you might as well elect a weather vane,” Smith said.
- Look for the “heart of the interest”, as many are motivated by a monetary interest.
- To make sense of politicians, watch how they run their campaigns. They will often govern how they campaign.
- Be wary of politicians who say that they are running because “its a natural extension of my service,” because that is self-centered, which is an antithesis of public service. He also warned against those who want to run government like a business, because it is not about a return on investment. It’s about writing rules that gives everybody a chance.
- Look for authenticity. “People are hungry for [it,]” Smith said. “They want people that stand something, rather than fall for everything. Voters will forgive the differences of opinion, but they will not forgive failure to lead.”
- Divide politicians into two groups: noisemakers and deal-makers. “It’s very difficult to be both,” he said. Noisemakers give the media what they want, and they make a lot of enemies, but they are needed because they set boundaries. Deal-makers are needed because they make things happen.
Holly Richardson, who spoke at a September 2016 Civic Engagement event, also provided these suggestions.
Running for Office
Though many may hesitate to fun for public office, particularly women, they may find that they’re more qualified than they think. Paige Albrecht, who ran for the Lehi Utah City Council in 2015 and won, met with community members, precinct chairs, and neighborhood influencers during her campaign. She said of them, in a 2016 Connections article: “The majority of them [were] women. They [were] extremely behind-the-scenes, [and] rarely [took] the stage themselves. When I ask[ed] why they [didn’t] run for office, I hear[d] things like ‘Oh, I could never do that!’ They just [didn’t] see themselves as leaders, while in reality they [were] doing more than they realize[d].”
That being said, Smith encouraged and cautioned those with a desire to run for office to:
- Have a desire
- Encourage and listen to criticism
- Learn to communicate clearly and concisely. “Be able to answer why you are running, in 30 seconds or less,” he said.
- Develop a conviction. Smith said the best advice he was ever given was to develop an opinion, through thorough research, and to write it out and and say it over and over, and that will help him develop a conviction.
- Believe in something and fight to defend it.
Being in Elected Office
And for those who do run and win, he said:
- Learn leadership. “You can’t be the jack of all trades,” Smith said.
- Keep a vision
- Learn how to delegate details
- Practice the art of constructive compromise. “You have to remember that what you see depends on where you’ve sat in life, and where you sit in office,” Smith said. It’s critical for someone in authority to understand other people’s lives.”
- Respond softly to vulgarity. “It will elevate and inform and protect you,” Smith said.
- Do not forget the importance of honesty and integrity. These are your cornerstones. Smith said that people should be able to trust you, even if they disagree with you.
- Keep your LDS covenants, because Smith said they will be a “shield and a protection to you.”
Smith’s Senate Service
The United States Senate influences the rest of the world through example, said Smith. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution are the greatest “exports” this country has. “We’re not a perfect nation, but we’re a good nation,” Smith said. “As long as we live up to the values of our founding documents, there is much good in the world.” For things that have a huge impact on many people, like Obamacare, both parties need to agree through compromise because things passed this way will last longer. But compromise can be very hard to achieve. It was one of the hardest things he was involved in during his time in the United States Senate.
What helped him was having a supportive family, because it was hard work, and meeting young people. “During my time as a senator, I delighted meeting with young people,” Smith said. They always asked Smith if he represented their ideas or his. Smith said he had two roles, one as a delegate and the other as a statesman.