Politician  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotPoliticians are people who are elected by the public to various leadership positions. They may be elected to a local school board, city council, state legislature or even the U.S. Congress.

dotAlthough only people who can vote actually elect people to government, politicians work for everyone in their constituency. No matter what the level, the job of the politician is the same. They shape future policies and work for constituents. In other words, it's a politician's job to help run government.

Politicians hold positions at many levels. They work at the municipal level leading the government in a city or town. They are also members of state legislative assemblies. Or they may be members of Congress at the federal level, representing their constituency in Washington.

dotThere are two kinds of politicians in the United States.

Legislative politicians include U.S. senators and representatives, city council officials and state representatives. They amend and pass laws. These politicians work closely with constituents, advisors and their staff to create policies serving their communities' needs.

Chief executives include the president and vice-president, state governors and mayors. They are the "bosses" of their political organizations. They decide where and when money should be spent. They determine where money will come from -- such as taxes and levies. They meet with legislators and constituents. And they set the goals for policies and programs.

dotGetting elected is no easy matter. To be elected at the state or federal level, you usually have to first win the approval of a political party. Then you can run under its banner. Once a candidate has won the "nomination" from the party, they go on to run in the election against candidates from other parties.

Almost all politicians become elected as members of political parties. Some run as independents, but they are few at the state and federal levels. More independent candidates run for school boards and city councils.

Politicians are elected to represent the people who vote for them. So they must be aware of the needs of the people they represent.

Politicians admit that job security can't be a priority for someone interested in this work. Just because you've won an election once doesn't mean you'll keep the job forever. While politics is a lifelong career for some people, for others it's just a temporary job.

"I've known both," says Nan Whaley. She's a city commissioner in Dayton, Ohio. "I've had friends involved (in politics) for 20 or 30 years and worked at all different levels, [while] some people have gotten involved and then gone to work in the private sector."

The election process can be difficult and expensive. The higher the office you are running for, the more traveling you'll have to do -- and the more time and money will be involved.

Political campaigns are always looking for looking for volunteers to stuff envelopes and knock on doors. Election campaigns tend to be exhausting, but thrilling, experiences.

"It's certainly stressful," says politician Duane Nicol. "It takes a special kind of person to want to go door to door and hand out pictures of yourself and your bio to all your neighbors. "

It's stressful because you can give them all the information, but then they make the decision behind the curtain and it's out of your hands," he adds. "It's basically a big report card that you're getting and the outcome determines whether you get that job or not."

dotIf you enjoy meetings, policy and political problems, politics might be for you! Politicians frequently meet with legislators, constituents and special interest groups. Hours of work vary depending on your political office. Federal and state politicians can have grueling schedules.

"If you decide to get involved in local politics it's not as '18-hour-dayish' (as state and federal politics)," says Whaley. "Local and state government is pretty fantastic because it's where people see most of their government at work. You can really make an impact."

Politicians must also be on call for any pressing political problems. And you may need to travel on a moment's notice.

Be prepared to be in the spotlight, even when you just want to be alone. Politicians say there really isn't much off-duty time. They're always watched by the public and the press.

"I'll be in a restaurant and someone will stop and ask me a question like we're best friends," says Nicol. "It serves to remind me that you're always on call and always in the public eye when you're not at home."

You'll need a high energy level for this demanding occupation. Politicians frequently work long hours and have long meetings with various groups.

What takes up most of a politician's time? "For me it's probably talking to constituents and dealing with citizens' concerns," says Whaley. "People call in with different issues if they're having problems with the government.

"I'm always meeting new people and understanding where they're coming from," she adds. "I spend most of my time sharing and listening. It does take an enormous amount of time to do that well."

At a Glance

Lead and serve in government

  • Most politicians don't do it for the money
  • It can be expensive to run a campaign
  • Politicians work long hours and make lots of big decisions