Memo to a new mayor

The following was written in 1978 after the election of Marion Barry
as mayor of Washington DC.


1. If the people had expected you to be infallible they would have made you Pope. They only elected you mayor. It’s not a question of whether you’ll make mistakes but how you make them and what you do afterwards. Correct them promptly and don’t be too proud to admit that your administration involves trial and error. Humility is a rare but endearing quality in a politician.

2. You probably think you have a mandate. Maybe you do, but it is a safer premise to regard yourself as on parole.

3. You promised leadership during the campaign but remember that the people want to lead too. Leadership involves listening to them as well as telling them.

4. Small plans lead to small disasters; big plans lead to big disasters. No big plan has saved this city yet; lots of small plans have helped.

5. You have more employees than many towns have citizens. Your government is a town in itself and will act like one. You will have to choose from time to time between the town that works for you and the one that elected you. It isn’t easy but it may help to keep in mind that the former wouldn’t be there without the latter .

6. Beware of experts. The people can show you how. They remember how many times the experts have been wrong and they have been right.

7. Let your promises lag slightly behind people’s expectations and they will have many pleasant surprises. A promise is like a hand grenade. If it’s not tossed at its mark soon enough it will blow up in your face.

8. At first, the press will treat you like an emperor. But they soon tire of that and will claim that you are walking around with no clothes on simply because your suit is a little tattered. Let people see for themselves how you are dressed. Remember that most voters do not come to city hall. You will have to go out and find them just as you did during the campaign. When you find them, remember that they want not so much to believe what you are saying as for you to believe what they are saying.

9. Reporters are always a pain, but they will become a scourge if your anger and frustration with them rises to the surface.

10. Some of your advisers will fail you. Move them gently but quickly out of the way.

11. A mistake admitted is soon forgotten; a mistake concealed can provide news copy for days.

12. Don’t be shocked or angered when your friends criticize you. They are full of unreasonable expectations, which you created. If you can’t do something their way, tell them why directly and simply. No one really expects politicians not to make compromises – unless you pretend you don’t.

13. If, after discussing a problem with your political aides, your bureaucratic advisers, your consultants and per-diem experts, you still can’t decide what to do, try a daring experiment: ask the people. They should be allowed to make mistakes, too. Besides, sharing power also allows you to share the blame.

14. Successful campaigning involves decentralized decisions and precinct-level leadership. City government, if it is successful, involves the same things. If neighborhoods were smart enough to elect you, they may also be smart enough to help you run the city, especially when decisions affect them most of all.

15. Be considerate enough of your successors not to leave them with too many problems. It is easy, and politically expedient, to create plans that won’t fail until you are safely out of office. Avoid the temptation.

16. Conversely, be considerate enough of your successors to leave them with improvements they won’t have to worry about. You can’t get credit for everything. Remember that a fifty-year-old tree still takes fifty fiscal years in which to grow. Plant it anyway.

17. Don’t forget the small things. You are not only mayor of a major city but its head janitor and recreation director. You may not be able to bring substantial progress in every area but you can make the wait more pleasant, more fun and more attractive. Establish an Office of Amenities, Trivia and Fun and charge it with finding things people can do, rather than, in the manner of most government agencies, what they can’t.

18. Buildings should be determined by the people and not vice versa. If you must plan, make sure your plans are incomplete so the people using them can influence them. Most city planners want to homogenize a town and let their structures order culture. This is the antithesis of what a city should be about. The success of a city is not determined by the logic of its design but by the multiplicity of its opportunities.

19. Avoid using “impact” as a verb. Don’t use “decision-making process,” “viable,” or “ongoing” at all and remember that communities and people want power, not “input.”

20. Never forget the Andrews Sisters song, “Don’t Worry About Strangers; Keep Your Eye on Your Best Friend.’ No mayor ever went to jail for what his enemies did.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.