Mayor Sly James of Kansas City recently found himself on a City Hall elevator with a stranger.
The constituent wanted to talk about guns. Which he did. All the way to the 29th floor.
James chuckled while recalling the dialogue. It didn’t change his position on gun laws, the mayor said, but it provided another reminder his job isn’t just about talking. It’s about listening.
“Everything we do, we hear about,” James said. “That’s part of the job.”
Local politicians say unplanned conversations with members of the public are a daily occurrence. They happen everywhere: the shopping mall, a hardware store, at dinner with the family. For busy officeholders, they’re an important link to public concerns.
Yet they can also be annoying, even hostile. That means officeholders must find a delicate balance between useful conversation and tiresome, time-wasting public disputes.
Local politicians of all persuasions nodded knowingly early this month after a Topeka waitress scribbled a short note on Gov. Sam Brownback’s weekend dinner receipt.
Skip the gratuity, Chloe Hough told the governor. “Tip the schools.”
The tale of a cheeky waitress criticizing a controversial governor broke on TV, then shot across the Internet. #Tiptheschools became a social media hashtag.
“I didn’t really care how he responded,” Hough later told Salon, an online magazine. “I’m not afraid of him.”
Some Kansas Republicans reacted angrily to the note, but Brownback wasn’t among them.
“I’m out in the public a lot, and I get a lot of people saying they agree with me, and I get a lot of people saying they don’t agree,” Brownback told reporters.
That response — some people like me, some don’t — is common.
“Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been at Home Depot,” said Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders. “It tells me what the issues are out there that people are thinking about.”
Still, unpleasant personal interruptions have prompted some public servants to return to the private sector. Mike White, a former Jackson County executive, said he decided to leave office partly because of repeated intrusions into his private life.
A constituent, he recalled, once berated him during a vacation in Wyoming. The man interrupted a White family dinner to complain about concert noise at Arrowhead Stadium.
“It is an irritant, that’s for sure,” White said. “You have to have a thick skin to be in public office, and you have to expect it.”
Other politicians report belligerent exchanges, even shouting matches. Some constituents have concerns that can be difficult to understand, leading to misunderstandings and anger.
“I was in a department store,” remembered U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. “A woman followed me around the store. … She said, ‘Thanks to you, I don’t have any insurance … that Obamacare.’ I wanted to say, ‘Ma’am, that’s probably not the case.’”
Some high-profile politicians — governors, mayors, senators — use security details and aides who block most routine interactions with the public. That makes the officeholder’s job safer but may inhibit connections with real people.
So major officeholders must make an effort to hear from the public. Most say they try to do so.
Gov. Jay Nixon recalled an unplanned meeting with a farmer in Bolivar, Mo., during the drought of 2012. The farmer suggested that the state divert some funds from erosion control programs to help farmers pay for private wells on their land.
Good idea, Nixon replied.
“If it wasn’t for a guy walking up to me saying, ‘Take the erosion money,’” he recalled, the water crisis might have deepened.
“They say things to you that actually make a difference,” he said.
That benefit has led many high-profile politicians to formalize their meetings with the public. Many hold town hall meetings with varying degrees of public access for questions and comments.
Yet those sessions can turn ugly quickly. Overflow crowds at congressional town hall meetings in 2009 and 2010 often turned into useless shouting matches over health care, guns and other emotional topics. The 2011 shooting of former congresswoman Gabby Giffords prompted some lawmakers to cancel town hall sessions.
That meant politicians had to find other ways to hear the public’s concerns. Cleaver, for example, holds occasional Saturday meetings with constituents.
Former Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County mayor Joe Reardon hosted monthly sessions with the public during his time in office. Constituents could come to City Hall on first Friday afternoons and talk with Reardon one on one about problems and concerns.
Reardon said the sessions were valuable for residents who didn’t want to talk in a town hall setting or at a commission meeting. Some people, he said, don’t like big audiences.
“It was fantastic,” Reardon said. “Some of the people who came to see me would never get in front of a microphone. … But they would come in an atmosphere where you could have five or 10 minutes with me.”
Officeholders say such scheduled sessions with the public don’t entirely eliminate uncomfortable interruptions. The only way to do that, they say, is to leave public office.
“It comes with the territory,” said Melba Curls, a former state representative and outgoing Kansas City Council member. “I’ve always been patient. I need to hear from the public.”
It also helps to accept a brutal reality — not everyone thinks as highly of you as you might think.
“People are not 100 percent supportive,” a laughing Nixon said, “of everything you do as governor.”