Government workers! Political appointees!
Those people—and we love to trash them.
Elected officials, whether at the local, county or state level, need professional staff to help them represent us, the people who elected them. Political staff are literally public-service employees: They represent an elected official by serving the public.
Recent studies indicate that public-employee salaries, with benefits included, may lag a bit behind the salaries of private-sector workers. The average annual salary for a political staff job is $59,000, near the mean that defines “middle class.”
When economic times are tough, and politicians want to score points, we hear lots of calls for “those people” to lose their jobs—implying that we don’t need them.
But who are “those people,” and what exactly do they do?
Pat Cooper, born in Blythe and currently living in Indio, did not grow up in a political household. She became issue-oriented when she joined the National Organization for Women in the Coachella Valley in the early 1990s.
“Issues invoke a passion,” says Pat. “I was very invested in the issue of women’s rights, and that started me on a road to activism. I remember when we defended the abortion clinic in Palm Desert, to ensure women could enter the clinic without harassment. That was standing up for an issue I believed in.”
Pat moved on to electoral politics, working on the campaign of Julie Bornstein, then running for re-election to the California Assembly.
“Activism is issue-driven. Policy is community-driven. The only way to (make sure) your issues will get addressed is via the political process. I wanted to help get someone elected who would champion the things I felt were important and could enact them into policy.”
Pat eventually landed on the staff of State Sen. Denise Ducheny, who represented the eastern portion of the Coachella Valley, part of San Diego County, and all of Imperial County.
“My job was to outreach with the professional communities—farm owners, businesses, chambers of commerce, developers, Salton Sea principals, manufacturers,” she says. “I was their liaison to the senator’s office and gathered the kinds of information that would influence her policy-making at the state level.
“One of the most valuable things I learned was how to craft policy for the best outcome for the community and to compromise across the political spectrum. I also had to learn how to effectively interface with other officials’ staff people. There are rules about all that, and it’s important to learn those protocols so that things can get done without stepping on anyone’s toes.”
After Sen. Ducheny was termed out of office, Pat returned to school to fulfill her dream of teaching. However, another call came that changed her mind.
Pat, a lifelong Democrat, was asked by Supervisor John Benoit, a Republican, to join his staff. Benoit was appointed to represent the 4th District after the death of Roy Wilson, a Republican with strong ties across party lines, and was then elected to a full term in 2010. Benoit assured Pat that his goal was to emulate the same nonpartisan approach to the job that Wilson had.
“I told Supervisor Benoit that there were some things on which I would draw the line, and he assured me that those few bottom-line issues would not present a problem. Although many of my political friends have been aghast that I would take a job working for a Republican, I have found Benoit good to his word.
“I’m proud that I’m doing a nonpartisan job to help formulate policies that are intended to benefit all constituents.”
Claudia Galvez, of La Quinta, was also in Sen. Ducheny’s office, and worked alongside Pat.
“I was born in Mexcali and lived my early life in Mexico, although my mom was born in Indio. Because I speak fluent Spanish, I was able to do effective outreach for Senator Ducheny directly into the community—with farmworkers, social service agencies, veterans, and on health and education issues.
“My mother was an inspiration when it came to being a strong woman. She had been left with nothing when my dad died when I was 5, and she had six children to raise. My mom always worked full-time. I thought women who stayed home must be lazy!
“Eventually we moved to Indio. I remember when there were 10 of us in a studio apartment—brothers, sisters, everyone struggling to find our place in the community. My dad had been a news reporter in Mexico—he was the political person in our house. My interest in becoming active began in school in Mexico, when we successfully demonstrated to get a principal reinstated who had been fired.”
Prior to her work with Sen. Ducheny, Claudia spent years organizing farmworker women. She was co-founder of Mujeres Mexicanas in the Coachella Valley. That social/political group later became Lideres Campesinas, a statewide organization created by farmworker women for farmworker women.
“We raised consciousness on issues like exposure to pesticides, pregnancy, sexual harassment and domestic violence. We advocated for basic human rights, like drinkable water, and portable bathrooms with running water and toilet paper. Before that, women had to walk miles from the fields to use a bathroom. It was wrong and unacceptable.
“Politics is the profession of getting things done by government for the benefit of the people, and these women wanted to elect people who would represent them and their issues. I wanted them to be empowered.”
Claudia is currently director of public affairs for Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo.
Both Pat and Claudia show disdain for politicians who, in their words, forget who put them there. It’s not just about the issues; it’s about making a difference for the people who will be affected.
Neither Pat nor Claudia has any apparent interest in running for political office themselves. But when it comes to understanding how to gather information and help frame policies that represent benefit to all constituents, they have the experience and street smarts to get things done.
Remember them the next time you decry public service employees. We need more like them.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.