We Asked Ex-Politicians What It’s Really Like to Be a Politician

It really goes without saying that politicians get a bad rep in society. Centuries of sensationalist headlines have told us that they’re either pathological liars, sexual deviants, thieves, or a combination of all three.

But it’s not like the negative perception isn’t warranted—do I need to bother mentioning the current White House or Rob Ford or Alison Redford or Bill Clinton being blown by his intern? Hell, my hometown even has its fair share of scandals with London, Ontario’s most recent mayor getting caught fucking the deputy mayor.

But despite their reputation and wrongdoings, it’s easy to forget that politicians are people too, and that for the most part, they’re just trying to do a good job and better society (as they see it). Sure, they have the ability to completely alter the reality of communities, cities, and countries, but they still put pants on one leg at a time. That’s why talking with ex-politicians makes for a sobering look at the profession—freed from the shackles of party whips and talking points, can they show us the human side to their profession?

We spoke to a number of Canadian politicians to find out.

Sheila Copps, Liberal Party

Former Deputy Prime Minister, Member of Parliament (Hamilton East), Minister of the Environment, and Minister of Canadian Heritage.

Webber For Congress: Do you feel like you had to lie a lot as a politician?
Sheila Copps: No. Not at all. There are times when you don’t necessarily give out all of the information but I definitely do not lie. Because any lie eventually gets found out. If you’re a liar, you’re not going to do very well.

The bottom line is, like in any other profession there’s always some people who are professional liars, but there are also a lot of honest people in that field. I don’t think they have any more liars per-capita basis than any other field. And I think in fact, especially in the modern world, the liars get found out even quicker.

What’s the worst thing someone has ever said to you while campaigning?

I think the worst thing was, there was a magazine article by Hustler which basically ran a contest asking people to identify which cunt was mine. It was called the hunt for the cunt, can you identify the cunt. That’s probably the worst thing that happened.

I ended up suing them for libel and slander and it was successful.

Do you think politicians are narcissists?

I think you have to have a fairly healthy ego to be a politician. And obviously the upside of a healthy ego is that it can be casual, but there is also a degree of narcissism in all politicians. Not to the extent of Donald Trump, that’s narcissism run amok.

You really have to have a very strong self-identity and a thick skin to survive in politics, or you’d just get wash up within the first week.

What do you think is the biggest misconception of politicians?

That they’re dishonest. People think that politicians are different from other people … you do have good people, some people are very self-absorbed and not so good. And I think politicians are no different than the rest, some honest, some dishonest. But I think there’s certainly a generalization that all politicians are crooks. And you can’t shake it. It’s been going on since time immemorial, it’s the butt of a lot of jokes. It is what it is. I know some politicians who lie, but not all of them.

Is money way better outside of politics?

Oh definitely. Definitely. It’s ironic, I mean a lot of these political problems that people get into, not just in Canada but around the world, often times will be not necessarily with politicians themselves but supporters trying to make money off politicians, because there is a lot of money to be made. There are people who tend to associate themselves with candidates and ministers to enhance their own financial benefit. It’s not always the politicians that have their fingers in the pot.

Roberto Leone, Progressive Conservative party

Former MP for Progressive Conservatives, and member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Served from 2011 – 2014.
Currently professor of political science at Western University.

Webber For Congress: Do you feel like you had to lie a lot as a politician?
Roberto Leone: I don’t think I ever had to lie. I take a lot of politics as how you perceive things in the moment. The fact that you have somebody who’s saying something you disagree with, you’re contesting an idea. So you disagree with an idea and vigorously oppose it, some might construe that as one person being right and one person being wrong but I just think that’s two people trying to debate an issue.

And I think that’s a healthy thing in a democracy.

What was the worse thing someone ever said to you while campaigning?

I couldn’t honestly think of something. I mean I’ve had doors slammed in my face, I’ve been told to get off people’s property. But I think by and large in almost every instance when I was going door knocking, people were polite. They gave you a few seconds of their time and generally speaking a lot of people were polite.

That doesn’t mean that there weren’t instances where people, for whatever reason, tried to get under your skin, or try to distract you from the task. A lot of the times you go to a door where someone will talk to you, and you knew they weren’t going to vote for you, and they’ll ask you a hundred questions to prevent you from going to doors.

Another thing was people ripping my lawn signs. I’ve had hundreds of lawn signs destroyed and lost.

How do you get past those confrontations?

You have to realize that there are a number of different viewpoints in society, some of which are going to align with you and some aren’t. And that’s part of the game. I think it’s a lot easier for a politician to handle that kind of attack.

I think what a lot of people don’t realize is every night when politicians go home, they have families. And families often take that kind of confrontation much differently and personally.

Biggest misconception about politicians?

I guess the biggest one that frustrated me the most was that people believe that you’re only at work when you’re sitting in the legislature. And that when you’re on a recess, that they’re on a holiday.

When you come home on the weekends and during your “holidays” that’s when all of the real action happens. Where you meet all of the constituents, listen to their concerns, and work on their problems.

I would say one of the biggest misconceptions is that they’re never on holidays. That they are always working, checking emails, that they can’t be too distant from what’s going on and that applies if they happen to be on a weekend getaway with their spouse. They’re still checking their phones for messages and trying to stay up-to-date on what’s happening back home.

So I think the misconception is that politicians have lots of holidays, so they don’t do lots of work and they get paid handsomely for it. And this is just not true.

Is money better outside of politics?

Yes for some, but not for all. For me personally, I’m doing better in the private sector than I was in politics but that’s not universally true for everyone. I think that when it comes to compensation, most people will say that being paid a six-figure salary in politics is a decent wage. And there’s a number of people who get involved in politics who, upon getting elected, get a pay bump, more than what they were making in the past.

Alex Atamanenko, NDP

Former MP for NDP, and member of the House of Commons.

Webber For Congress: Do you feel like you had to lie a lot as a politician?
Alex Atamanenko: No.

Maybe elaborate on that?

Well I did what I thought was right and tried to maintain integrity and honesty, so I didn’t have a problem with that.

Did you ever feel like you were pressured to fabricate the truth or stretch it out?

I didn’t feel that.

What was the worse thing someone has ever said to you?

Most of all of my campaigns were pretty civil. I guess maybe, I don’t know, last candidate may have said that he didn’t think I was doing my job or representing the people or something like that.

But I was never partial to any real nastiness.

No one ever said anything mean to you? Possibly yelled at you?

Nothing that really stands out to be honest with you.

Do you think politicians are narcissists?

Maybe some. Like anybody else in any other place in society. I think the people that I’ve worked with are in it for the right reason. Regardless of their political beliefs, they want to do something better for the country.

Biggest misconception about politicians?

I think that the biggest misconception is that they don’t do anything. People don’t really understand that most people are in there trying to do their job, working for their constituents, and working hard.

Politicians, the one’s I know, work hard. And many of them have to travel, you know they represent remote ridings so they’re always on the road. They sacrifice a lot of time with their family to do their job.

Do you think the money is way better outside of politics?

Yeah. I think someone who’s doing the job of an MP, doing the same job, would be paid a lot more being in the private sector.

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