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Photo by Mariah Wilson

SU executive turned City Hall staffer talks breaking into municipal politics

By Sean Willett, July 25 2017 —

While a career in politics can sound enticing to a newly graduated student, it is not easy to turn that dream into a job. To learn what it takes to make the transition from student politics to municipal politics, the Gauntlet sat down with former Students’ Union vice-president external Romy Garrido. Since October, Garrido has been working as a staff member for Ward 7 councillor Druh Farrell. We asked her how she got into municipal politics, how her experience at the SU helped her succeed and what advice she has for students looking to follow in her footsteps.

What was the process like of getting this job? Did you just see an opening and go for it?

A little bit, yeah. I had to go the traditional route, I didn’t really know anybody in Druh’s team at all. I did get a note from my ex-colleague Levi Nelson — who is now my current colleague at City Hall — saying there is an opening in Druh Farrell’s team. It wasn’t an internal thing though, it was a public posting. So I just applied like any other person and went through the interview process. But I do have to admit, working in the SU did really help me out because I knew a lot of the same people.

On that topic — how has your time in the SU helped you out during this job? How much of it has been a direct benefit, in terms of experience, skills and connections?

I would say 100 per cent of it has been super helpful. I’m not going to sit here and lie and say that being in the SU doesn’t get you places or doesn’t open doors. It does — as long as you do things right. Being in the SU, you have a whole world of opportunities to network with people and build relationships through the work that you do. But of course, that’s only if you actually do a good job. If you leave a good mark and a good impression, then after you leave you can use those contacts. I didn’t have to use my contacts to get this job, but when they asked what kind of experience I have with government I was able to draw on my year on the SU to prove I could do a competent job at City Hall as well.

Was this your goal, to work in City Hall?

No, no, no. While I was in the SU, especially nearing the end of my time there, my view of politics as a whole became pretty negative. I was essentially turned off of politics by the end of it. I think in the SU you can have an impact on what goes on in the government in terms of student issues, but how small that impact is can leave you a bit jaded. So I did the typical post-SU backpacking trip to go find myself that everybody does, and during that trip I became a total hippie and said, ‘I’m never working in politics, I don’t want to do that, I want to stay away from it all.’ But near the end I came back to reality. When I got the note from Levi about the opening in Druh’s office, I figured that if I am ever going to work in politics, municipal is probably the place I want to be.

Let’s go a bit more into that. Do you feel like you can do more as a municipal worker than you would be able to at a higher level of government?

I feel like the results municipally are a lot more tangible. I’m not necessarily speaking of myself as a municipal worker, but more for the City of Calgary itself. You know, you fix a road and the result is right there for people. It is a small thing — it’s not like we’re solving world hunger — but we’re getting shit done for people.

I get what you mean. When something changes on a municipal level it really impacts people’s lives directly. Has that been rewarding for you?

It has been. I probably won’t be seeing the impact I had on the SU for years, and by then I’ll probably be too disconnected from that world to even notice. So it was a bit of a selfish decision to come to City Hall because, as you said, it’s more rewarding to see those results. Even grunt work like answering people’s calls about potholes, when I can get an issue like that resolved for somebody and they’re super thankful about it, it makes my day a bit better.

Do you see a lot of students going into municipal politics right out of school? Or do most people with a political bent go towards provincial- or federal-level jobs?

If I think about my colleagues in students’ unions throughout the country, most went into provincial or federal jobs. I can’t think of many people that I worked with who went into municipal politics.

Why do you think that is?

I can think of two reasons. First, I think it’s just the nature of the SU job, since you primarily work with provincial and federal governments. Levi, during his year, got to work at the municipal level because secondary suites were a big issue. But generally that’s not the case. The second reason is that provincial and federal jobs are just more attractive, especially federal. There’s more of a sense of prestige going to work in the legislature or in Ottawa. You’re working with the ‘big guys,’ especially if you get a job with a minister or something like that. So I can see why it’s more attractive.

So what about your future? Are you planning on staying in municipal politics for a while?

Ugh, that’s a good question. It changes every day.

I know the feeling.

Typical millennials, right? Don’t know what to do. I have a bachelor in poli-sci, so I guess the natural progression of that is to go to law school or something similar.

Do you think you’d ever run for office?

No, no. I mean, I’ve toyed with the idea. But haven’t we all? Especially if you’re in poli-sci or in the SU. But I don’t think so. I think you can get a lot more done being behind the scenes. Municipally though, just to speak to my boss, Druh has gotten a lot of stuff done completely on her own. So if you want to run for office but still be hands-on with stuff, municipal politics is a good place for that.

If I was to run for office provincially or federally, I really doubt that there is a lot I could do. And that’s a part of the problem for me. I like to get stuff done. Staffers get stuff done, even if they don’t get credit for it.

Like in the SU?

Yes! The SU is a very good example. The SU was a good play-place for actual politics. It wasn’t much different.

Going off of that — what did you do during your time as a student that helped prepare you for a job in politics? The SU, obviously, but what specifically set you up for success?

I think everything. The SU is like a mini-city in a way, with elected officials, council, advocacy, staffers and a bunch of services that are provided. The SU helped me learn how a municipality works, even if I didn’t know it at the time. There have been times where people at City Hall who don’t know me have sat me down to explain something, only for me to go, ‘Oh yeah, I know how this works!’ Because we did the same things in the SU.

Would you say your time at the SU was more useful than your poli-sci degree?

Yes, oh my god. 100 per cent yes. I learned a great deal during my degree, but it was mostly theory and nothing practical. It was the SU that propped me up for success.

What advice would you give someone who wants to run in the SU and follow in your footsteps?

I think the first question you have to ask yourself is why you are doing this. I’m not a fan of career politicians. If you’re growing up as a child and see people with fancy suits and think that’s politics and that’s what you want to do with your life, then maybe there’s something you’re missing. Because to me, politics and government should be about helping people. That’s what it should be, anyway, even if it has been distorted over time. So do a self-analysis of why you want to do this. If it’s because you want to have an impact in some way, or you have a policy idea that you think could change people’s lives, then awesome. I think you’re in the right place. Other than that, if you’re thinking of running for the SU, just give it a shot. I know it’s tough to put yourself out there and to be criticized, but what do you have to lose? If you don’t go for it, someone else will.

 

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