How a young law school grad won his first election in city politics (Hint: He knocked on every door in his district. Twice.)
This interview is with Stanley Chang, elected representative for Honolulu City Council, District 4. (Download the audio recording of this interview.)
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. I am 29 years old. I went to Harvard College, class of 2004 in Government. I then went to Harvard Law School and graduated in 2008. I was a summer associate at Skadden Arps and also at a firm in Honolulu called Cades Schutte, where I worked for a year after law school. I was then full-time on my campaign for City Council for 15 months. I won the election in November 2010, and I’ve been serving on the City Council since January 2011.
Q. Tell us how your career path has taken you to your current role with the City Council.
A. Well, public service is something that I’ve always been interested in ever since I can remember. But there were two particular moments that it really became real to me.
The first was in 2004. I was in New York working for a year in between college and law school at Sony Music. A friend of mine from high school back in Hawaii had been working on a mayoral campaign. And against the odds, an amazing 20-point-in-the-poll comeback, his candidate won. That experience made politics very real to me. And that’s when I decided elected office is something that I’m very interested in doing.
The second crucial decision point came in the fall of 2007, when I was considering whether to go immediately back to Hawaii to start working in a law firm while jointly preparing for public service, or whether to work for a few years in a big international law firm.
Everyone told me I should go to Skadden and work there. I had a great time there as a summer associate, and I really enjoyed working there and would have learned a lot there. Many good friends, including those in Hawaii, advised me to take the international experience first.
But there was one friend of mine whom I trusted, whose dad had been an old political hand here in Hawaii. And he was one of the very few people who told me, “Hey, if you want to run for office in Hawaii, you’ve got to be in Hawaii.”
And I knew that’s what I wanted to do in the future. Since I knew where Point B was, I decided there was no point in going from Point A to C, D, E, F, G, H, I, just to get to point B. Instead, I decided to just go straight to Point B.
Q. What was your friend’s dad’s rationale vs. the rationale of others who said you should get international experience first?
A. They thought it would broaden my horizons. That it would be personally very interesting to me, and that I would grow a lot — all that kind of thing. And they were all right.
But what only I could have really known about myself was that I knew I wanted to go into public service, and it was worth any sacrifice to do that. So if the marginal two extra years in Hawaii would have improved my chances in the future by five percent, it would have been worth it — because every day that I was in Hong Kong or something, it would be somebody else back in Hawaii meeting the right people, shaking the right hands, and so on.
And while it might seem like a politician is going to have a long career — there are a lot of people who are in their 80s and 90s in public service today — the fact is there is kind of a short shelf life.
If you really want to be in one of the major offices, you’re probably viable between 35 and 60, which is 25 years. And that sounds like a long time, but when you think about one of the Senate seats in Hawaii, Senator Inouye’s seat has not turned over since 1963. The other one hasn’t turned over since 1990.
There are entire generations of people whose time has just come and gone and they’ve never been able to make that transition. So I really wanted to maximize those chances for myself.
Q. So for people who know what they want to do long-term, is going directly to Point B the better option?
A. Right. Well, what I actually always tell people about careers is that there are really two questions.
The first question is: what is Point B? If you know where Point B is, if you can figure that question out, then the second question is actually really easy, which is how to get from Point A to Point B. In almost all cases, it’s very easy to know how to get from where you are to Point B.
For example, for public service and elected politics, if you want to be an elected official, you run for it. Campaigns are not rocket science. It’s actually pretty straightforward how to win a campaign.
But the really hard question is, what is Point B? I know a lot of people who have a lot of interests. They don’t know what they want to do with their lives and they want to keep their options open.
So what I also ask people who are searching for Point B to do is to picture yourself on your death bed 90 years from now. You’re surrounded by your family. You have a lot of kids and grandkids and everything, and you’re looking back on your life. Is there anything you would regret not having done?
And for me, when I was in college, and also when I worked at Sony Music in the year between college and law school, it became very clear to me that even if I were to become CEO of Sony Music, and sign the world’s first billion dollar record deal, and become the most powerful person in music, and become extremely influential, and turn out platinum record after platinum record, I would still be thinking: “Well, how can I parlay this into a career in public service?”
So I think that is a useful thought experiment to help you find out what Point B might be.
Q. What specific steps did you take to transition from corporate law to elected office?
A. Well, it’s actually pretty straightforward, as I was saying. The first step was that I actually had a campaign manager. We had been introduced by a friend, and almost from the first 30 minutes, we were already discussing what we had to do tactically. We got to do this, we got to do that, and so on.
That actually happened even before I started working at Cades Schutte officially. I was still a summer associate at that time. When I started as a summer associate, I was enjoying my work very much. I was learning a lot. I had made a lot of friends at the firm.
I started in the summer of 2008, and when the election of 2008 wrapped up and we were looking ahead to 2010, I’d only been at the firm maybe six months or so when I really said to myself, “You know what? If I can win in 2010, I’m going to run.”
And so I asked around, and people said, “Yes, absolutely. You can win.” So what I did was, in the spring of 2009, I went half-time at the office to start working on the campaign, bringing people together, going to neighborhood board meetings, all that kind of stuff. And I left the firm officially on September 1, 2009, to go full time on the campaign.
Even there, it’s not really rocket science. There is some basic paperwork you fill out. But the main thing I did was to knock on doors full-time for 15 months. I knocked on 19,000 doors, and that’s how I won the election. It really isn’t rocket science. It’s almost like being a postman. I didn’t need a Harvard degree or anything. That’s what a postman does every day. They walk from door-to-door and they knock on people’s doors. That was my job for 15 months.
Q. What did you say to the 19,000 people whose doors you knocked on to convince them to vote for you?
A. I would just have a short little spiel. I would say, “Aloha!” And someone comes to the door, and they would open the door and I would say, “Aloha, Mr. Chen. My name is Stanley Chang and I’m running for City Council in this area. I am running to bring a fresh vision for better government here in Hawaii. The top priorities that I think our city should have are paving our roads and being fiscally responsible, and most importantly, if you think there’s something the city should be doing, please let me know.”
And then we would have a conversation about whatever issues they might have — or not. For some people, a lot of people actually, that was enough for them. I would hand over my literature and that would be that. And I would record everyone’s responses and move on to the next house.
Q. Is it fair to say it was both awareness-building and getting a pulse on what was really on the electorates’ mind so you had a better way to tailor your message?
Q. What was it like for your parents? How did they take the news that you wanted to go into elected office so early?
A. Well, they were very active in my campaign. Without their full and complete support, there’s no way I would have been able to do what I did.
I was living on savings for a time, but that was not enough to get me through 15 months on full-time campaigning with no other source of support. But even beyond that, we do something in Hawaii called sign-waving, which is where we stand by the side of the road, with our logo, our signs, and we wave at the passing traffic. Everything from organizing and attending events, and bringing in volunteers, they were one-hundred-percent invested.
But to be honest, they were not thrilled in the beginning when I made this decision. As you can imagine, for any Asian parents, they felt it was a little bit risky. It might not be the right time. I think my mother also personally had the idea of living in Hong Kong half the year, and if I had been working there, it would be very easy to spend a lot of time with our family and me.
But in the end, she was fully supportive.
Q. What made your parents come around?
A. I think when they saw how serious I was and how much work I was putting into it and how hard I was working on it. I think they really started to see that this was really what I wanted to do with my life, and that this is what really motivated and inspired me. And when they saw that, they were fully invested.
Q. What is it like working as a city council member and what do you do day-to-day?
A. I think there are two main roles to being a city council member. There’s a public role which involves going to events, neighborhood board meetings, high school graduations, fundraisers, community gatherings, security watch annual meetings, that kind of thing. And that’s very busy — if I wanted to do that all day every day, I could just do that.
But of course, there’s the other role, which is the legislative role, which I think is what people feel they’re electing. Here you’re reading bills, drafting bills, working with people on their complaints, directing their complaints to the right city agencies, debating legislation, working with my colleagues in terms of “Well, will we support this bill? If we change it this way, we’ll support it.” That kind of thing. It’s very, very busy, and there’s very little downtime between those two things.
Q. How did you meet your current legislative staff?
A. Well, I have five positions in my office. We’re actually going through some transition right now, but I’ll start with the ones who aren’t transitioning.
My executive assistant is Linnie Pascual. She had been working for the previous council member in my seat, so she’s a carryover.
Steve Uyeno had been a chief of staff to one of my colleagues in the past. But when I met him, he had been working at Queen’s Hospital doing PR. We understood that he wanted to get back into city work and so I met him. He had a wealth of experience and we brought him on.
My chief of staff actually just left. His last day was two days ago, so Steve is taking that role. But my former chief of staff had been my campaign manager, the one who I’ve been working with from day one, and he was also a natural transition from the election to being on staff.
Michael Leong is my constituent coordinator. We had a vacancy in that position, and he had a background in both social work and community outreach. He lived in the district and he had been a great supporter during the election. So it was a very natural fit for him in terms of qualifications.
The last person has been with us for a year, and he’ll be transitioning out within a couple months. He helps with communications including our newsletter, our e-mails, our website, Facebook, and other tasks as assigned. We actually knew him from the election as well. He had been a big help and a big supporter, so when he decided to take a year off between high school and college, we brought him on board.
Q. What is most exciting to you about local city politics? What do you most wish you could change?
A. The most exciting part is being able to make a difference. I’ve been incredibly gratified because, as a freshman council member, I really had no idea what to expect. There were a lot of veterans on the council who had been there for literally decades. And when I came on, I had never worked at the City Council. I had never worked for any legislator. I only had very shallow experience in government of any kind. So I was a little apprehensive.
But I’ve really enjoyed working with all my colleagues. Since there are only nine of us, each one of us really does make a big difference. We have a very collegial relationship with each other. We’re very inclined to collaborate. For example, if I introduce a bill, my colleagues are typically very willing to support and offer help. And that goes the other way, too. If my colleagues introduce legislation, I’m very inclined to support them as well.
So as a result, I think I’ve been really lucky in terms of legislation. For example, we initiated a ten-year program to bring our roads in Honolulu to the best level they’ve ever been in, and maintaining them at that level into the indefinite future. That was my top priority in the election and we’re actually making it happen.
Another one of the hot issues here in Honolulu is the rail. One of the members of the rail authority is someone whom I proposed and who I really personally advocated for. So there are members of boards and commissions who are my “names.” That’s incredibly rewarding to see those kind of tangible results.
I guess if I have to change something, I would really love to be able to have more time with individual constituents, both individually and in groups. Because I think a lot of why people are cynical about government is a lack of communication, a lack of two-way dialog.
What that means is, whether it’s removing trees because they’re uplifting pavement in a certain part of my district, or painting lane lines on a road to reduce speeding, or to widen a road shoulder that would affect certain neighboring properties — a lot of the opposition isn’t really opposition; it just tends to be that people don’t understand what the situation is.
And naturally, people are going to have a lot of questions if you propose a change. If there’s some sort of sensationalistic media coverage, there can be a lot of conclusions drawn and jumped to that are not necessarily accurate. But I think all of this can be solved with a lot more communication. Frankly, there are just not enough hours in the day for me to get out there and sit down with as many people as I would like to.
That’s something I really wish, if I had a magic wand, that I would be able to spend a lot of time doing that communication role. Sitting down and doing as much dialog as I possibly can and taking account people’s feedback. Because very often there are great suggestions that come from the community, and they do improve our projects.
Q. What have you learned about how to communicate with your constituency? And what best practices can other aspiring politicians learn from you?
A. I think people tend to think that public service and politics is, in some ways, categorically different from any other type of job. There’s a lot of criticism. You see words like “crony” and “conspiracy.” There’s often perceptions that people in politics are not doing things in the public interest. They’re scratching each other’s backs. Or there are insider sweetheart relationships.
And I think that’s really, really unfair because public service is really just like any other job. For example, if you are a shift worker, and your shift normally gets off at 6 pm, and maybe one day you want to leave a little bit early; you want to leave at 5 pm to take your kid to the doctor. And so you ask the person who’s supposed to come in at 6 pm to come in a little bit early. So you’re asking for a favor.
If you want your co-worker to do you that favor, you probably shouldn’t be going out into the press and saying that individual is corrupt and in the pockets of special interests, or is not serving his constituents, or is out of touch with reality.
If you start saying things like that, your co-worker will probably not be inclined to do you any favors. And it’s no different in politics. If you want to just generate a lot of noise and heat and public press and angry op-eds, and you want to be out there as a “fighter,” and you want to criticize people and call people out by name and all that kind of thing, then you can do that, but you’re not going to get a lot done.
If you want to get stuff done, and if you actually want to be able to help your constituents and make things actually happen, instead of just tearing your hair out and screaming and ranting and raving about them in public, then you have to be able to work with people.
I think that’s not just true in public service but that’s true in any job.
Q. What are best practices for communicating with your constituency to ensure there aren’t those misperceptions and there is that two-way dialog?
A. Well, that’s where I think going door-to-door and hitting the street actually makes a huge difference. Because when you’re talking to people on a one-on-one basis, when you’re cutting through all the media sensationalism, when you’re cutting through the loud vocal minority, you’ll really get to see what the silent majority is concerned about.
That’s why I’ve been spending so much time on the roads issue, because here in Honolulu we do have some of the worst roads in the country. It’s not a glamorous issue. It’s not an issue that gets a ton of press. But it’s what affects people every day.
And so when you’ve talked to the thousands of people that I’ve talked to, that’s what they’re actually concerned about — even more so than taxes, even more so than the hot-button issues like the rail. They want better roads. That’s given me a really clear perspective on what I think my priority should be.
Q. So you really just have to pound the pavement.
A. Exactly. Walk the streets. Pound the pavement. There’s no shortcut.
Q. What do you see yourself doing in the future, and how is what you’re doing today going to help you toward that goal?
A. I’ll definitely stay in public service the rest of my life. Where that takes me, who knows? I’m up for re-election in 2014. And I’m certainly looking forward to having the opportunity to serve District 4 again in that capacity. Beyond that, it’s very hard to say. But I do want to stay in public service for the rest of my life. This is my life’s work.
Q. What advice do you have for people who may be interested in exploring public service?
A. Well, I would say do it. Absolutely, unequivocally, we need more young people in politics. We need people with all kinds of backgrounds in public service.
The fact of the matter is — and I’m not going to mince words here — the people who are in public service today are not the best and the brightest. And the more kinds of people who are interested in serving, the more different perspectives we get, I think the better government we will get.
On a practical level, again like I said, it’s really not rocket science. If you are interested in public service, I recommend doing so by getting involved in your district, like maybe a state house or a county official or some other position.
For a constituency of one hundred thousand people or less, there is very little uncertainty. Meaning, if you’re running for a district that is a hundred thousand people or less, all the information I need to know whether or not you will win — not whether you have a good chance, not whether you’ll do well — but whether you will win, with a great degree of certainty, is how much you walk and how much your opponent walks, and of course how much name recognition your opponent has to begin with.
What you really need to do is hit the streets and knock on as many doors as you possibly can. Walk, walk, walk and don’t stop. Be a postman for 15 months. Just do nothing but knock on doors. Every daylight hour should be spent knocking on doors. If you do that, you will win. Nothing else will matter.
Your opponent could be much better known in the community, could have a hundred percent name recognition, throw a lot of personal money into the race, there could be attack ads against you, maybe you had a DUI, maybe you had an arrest in the past, maybe you only just moved in the district, maybe your opponent has ten times as many endorsements, maybe he has ten times as many sign wavers and volunteers and phone bankers, and whatever else the case may be. If you walk that much more than your opponent, you will win.
So on the positive side, it’s very easy to get into public service. You will win if you walk a lot. The downside, as I said before, is that there is nothing sexy or glamorous about it. It’s walking the streets day in and day out, and being one hundred percent consistent about it.
There’s no shortcut for anybody, even if you have a hundred percent name recognition. But I think the end result is probably a good thing, because like I said it brings you closer to the ground and closer in touch with the needs of your constituents, which really should be the point of all this anyway.
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