The Five Ts

A lesson from local politics

They say that all politics is local. Perhaps. But here’s a secret I’ve learned: all local politics come down to the 5 Ts. Let me explain.

In 2010, my boss was running for re-election as a local council member. She had an impressive record in her first term. She passed major legislation on areas ranging from environmental sustainability, reforming the election laws, bringing healthier foods into public schools, and more. One night, she and I were at one of the regular “house parties” that are a staple of local campaigns. They’re small, intimate affairs, where the candidate will mix and mingle, eventually the host will introduce the candidate, and the candidate will give a speech. According to plan, my boss gave her stump speech.

Normally, during that stump speech, I paid attention to what my boss was saying. That night, I tried to pay closer attention to the audience. As the Councilmember talked about her accomplishments and her vision, people nodded along and politely clapped. “We have made the District a leader in bringing renewable energies!” Clap. “We have passed legislation that would protect whistleblowers and ferret out corruption in.” Clap clap. And then, the Councilmember list another achievement: “We brought the Visitor Parking Pass to Ward 3.” The crowd was ecstatic in applause.

I couldn’t believe how much that one sentence – “We brought the Visitor Parking Pass to Ward 3” – would matter. After all, the Councilmember just listed many things that were objectively harder, and would have long term impacts on the District. The Visitor Parking Pass (“VPP”) just meant that guests to your home could park for longer than 2 hours. In the grand scheme of things, the VPP should have been background noise; instead, it was the denouement. She won her re-election handily. And I’ve never forgot this lesson:

In local politics, the things that really matter to a large portion of voters are the things they interact with, what I learned were the “5 Ts”: Teachers, Traffic, Trees, Taxes, and Trash.

The 5 Ts were the things that would get people exercised, both positively and negatively. Cut down trees? Expect a phone call from a concerned constituent. Piss off teachers? You might end up like the former Kentucky governor in 2019. Miss trash pickup? Plan on losing your re-election.

Over the years, I’ve wondered whether those 5 Ts are universal, or merely reflected a particular constituency. It’s possible that in other parts of the District or in other cities, there are different Ts. But there are always 5 Ts. Success depends on knowing them.