Today, I write a love letter, not from the kind of love that sends your heart aflutter or steals your breath. It’s from a kind that makes space for change and a narrative of possibility. It is the type of love that gives you breath. My letter is to someone whose profession is rarely tied to love. I think that's an injustice and I’m attempting to right a wrong.
This love letter is to Peter Steinbrueck, a politician and my former boss.
Beyond policy positions, I look for three things when assessing a politician’s ability to win and be impactful: resilience, charisma and wonkiness. Peter had resilience and wonkiness in spades when he asked me to join his Seattle City Council team as a legislative aide in 1996. Charisma? Let’s just say he was no Obama. What he lacked in traditional charisma, he made up for with the particular kind of charm that accompanies earnestness.
I love you for your courage and humility.
A quarter of a century later, I still think about a meeting with business leaders aggressively pushing their agenda for ‘business improvement districts’. They clearly had hopes that you would be their man. They, after all, had helped you get elected. I remember eight to 10 of them swarming into our office almost gleeful about what they thought would be an automatic yes to their specific demands. You warmly greeted them with a thick binder of code, laws and budgets under your nose.
The group began pushing for a date when changes would be made. You paused and then said: “I know the changes you want done are very important to you. I appreciated your support on my campaign. As I said then and I say now, I am elected to represent ALL people and I cannot and will not drive this agenda forward without hearing from ALL stakeholders.”
Our eyes met. The air was thick with tension. The business group got up without the same spring in their step and left, not defeated but impatiently delayed. The last woman in the group, a bit older than the rest, turned to me on her way out and whispered, “He’s doing the right thing”.
You showed courage. Many would have buckled under the pressure of that meeting. You stood up for the citizens who couldn’t be in that room.
Then, there’s Project Liftoff: my favorite project from our time together. New evidence showed early childhood development and investments were a social force multiplier, especially for toddlers in poorer neighborhoods. Unlike the business leaders we often heard from, children and their parents were not the constituents we usually saw in our office making demands.
You didn’t rest in the silence.
You knew that getting more quality early childhood centers up and running would require building code changes. You also knew, from watching your dad working on historic preservation, that public servants were the ones with the ideas and answers.
We invited the bureaucrats in, shared the problem, and co-created the solution. You deeply respected their experience and expertise. They, in return, respected you. You showed humility and Seattle’s kids reaped the benefits.
Thank you for your service, Peter.
From your friend,
Courage and humility: how often do you see these words describing politicians? How often do you hear love stories about them?
I know many more politicians who are humble, courageous, empathetic and committed. I’m sure you have at least one you admire. I encourage you to write them a love letter. If we’re going to get the people we want into politics—those who work with citizens and public servants to deliver on democracy—we need to celebrate the leaders who serve us well as much as we criticize those doing the wrong thing. Submit your love letter to be published.
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Lisa also thanked Peter in her speech at the 2022 Creative Bureaucracy Festival in Berlin.