When Politics Is Your Side Hustle

For these five politicians, governing is just one part of the daily grind.

 

For civil servants across the country, the job of governing doesn’t always pay a living wage. In Topic’s new documentary The Pride of Del Rio, mayor Bruno “Ralphy” Lozano splits his time between setting policy for the citizens of Del Rio, Texas, and working a second job as a flight attendant. We talked to mayors, state representatives, and state senators who hustle for their constituents while balancing a second, or even third, paying gig.

 

EDDIE LAMBERT, Louisiana state senator His other gig: Alligator hunter

The process of trapping an alligator is relatively simple: Tie one end of a 30-foot nylon line to a tree and the other to a hooked chicken leg, hang the meat over a swamp, wait for the alligator to strike, reel it in, and shoot the gator in the head. It’s a trick that Eddie Lambert and his family have used for generations—and a skill many of his constituents are familiar with as well.

Lambert has been a licensed alligator trapper for 20 years; he’s also been a three-term member of the Louisiana House of Representatives and, since January 2016, a Louisiana state senator, representing residents from District 18, a suburban and rural area that includes the outskirts of Baton Rouge as well as the mangrove forests and brackish swamplands of Lake Maurepas and its neighboring bayous, where Lambert does most of his alligator hunting.

Louisiana state legislators earn a salary of $22,800 a year, with a per diem of $164 for food, travel, and lodging. The main source of Lambert’s income comes from his work as a local attorney, a job he can set aside when the legislature is in session. “It makes it almost impossible for a regular person to do it,” he says of working as a senator, because “you’ve got three to four months a year that you’re away from your job.” Lambert used to be able to get $40 a foot for alligators, but because of the proliferation of alligator farms, over the past few years the price has dropped to $8 a foot. Though he usually sells the skin, sometimes Lambert keeps it and has it tanned and crafted into items such as boots or a purse for his daughter.

When Lambert’s out on a hunt, the 62-year-old often bumps into constituents, who sometimes complain to him about legislation that regulates fishing and hunting. Lambert can relate—alligator season is short, running from late August through early October, so he and other hunters have to find other game to keep them busy. In October he hunts ducks, from November through January he catches catfish, he finds frogs until March, he catches crawfish through June, and starting in July, he hunts crabs. “I’ve got a lot of constituents,” he says. “I think it’s probably 130,000. I wouldn’t be surprised if the area that I represent at least 500 of them have [hunted alligators].”

 

ANNE WATSON, Mayor of Montpelier, Vermont Her other gigs: High school physics teacher and Ultimate Frisbee coach

Situated in northern Vermont, with a population of 7,800, the smallest state capital in the country might also be its quirkiest. Montpelier—or “Montpeculiar,” as residents often refer to it—hosts a variety of unconventional yearly rituals, such as All Species Day, held on the first Sunday in May, when residents dress up in eccentric costumes to celebrate the “interdependence of earth’s beauty and bounty.”

The community is a natural fit for Anne Watson, Montpelier’s 37-year-old mayor, who also works as a part-time Ultimate Frisbee coach and full-time high school physics teacher. Following her election in 2017, Watson quickly realized there was no physical office for the mayor. Because Watson’s schedule was strictly carved out during the school year—teaching in the morning, coaching in the afternoon, heading government meetings at night—it wasn’t essential for her to have one, though she did end up annexing a small space with a desk just outside the city manager’s office.

During the academic year, Watson’s day-to-day life is often a balancing act, fraught with scheduling conflicts and rushed dinners, but she’s learned that many of her teaching and coaching skills translate to tasks at city hall, from managing time at city council meetings and knowing when to interrupt to being able to read a room and dealing with upset constituents. In mid-October, the city scheduled a helmet giveaway to promote a new program involving electric scooters, but the event coincided with the fall festival at Watson’s high school. When a council member messaged her to ask if she could attend, she wrote back: “I would! But I will be singing ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen, dressed up as Elsa in front of the whole school.”

Watson makes $4,000 a year as mayor, and on the few personal days that she takes off from teaching, she prioritizes her administration’s environmental agenda, making trips to other parts of the area, including a neighboring town’s garbage-and-recycling facility, where she researched ideas for better municipal waste management. She enjoys the work, she says, though she’s still adapting to the seriousness of city council meetings, where she might end up being quoted by the press. “The jokes often don’t translate,” she explains.

 

STEPHEN MEEKS, Arkansas state representative His other gig: Pizza delivery man

In Conway, Arkansas, about 30 miles north of Little Rock, in a strip mall with a nail salon and a pub flanking the University of Central Arkansas, is the Papa John’s from which 48-year-old state representative Stephen Meeks shuttles pizzas four nights a week. Meeks drives around town in a navy-blue Toyota Corolla, decked out with a license plate with the state’s legislative seal and the bright tomato-red Papa John’s sign.

The job, which he’s held for three years, has earned Meeks attention from curious commuters, local reporters, and on one occasion a confused police officer, after a woman called in to report that the legislator’s car had been stolen. But few people recognize him when he walks up to their doorstep in his black polo, with a pizza and soda in hand; Meeks, who represents only a slice of this city, usually delivers outside his district, which includes a handful of suburban communities and the northwest corner of Conway, and arches above Beaverfork Lake, an area of soybean and rice farms.

During his eight years in the state legislature, Meeks has been focusing on issues like expanding broadband internet access to rural areas across the state. He decided to take on the pizza gig in 2015 to make some extra money. (Meeks earns $40,188 a year as a state representative, and delivering pizzas can bring as much as $1,200 each month between the steady hourly rate he earns at the shop and the tips he collects while he’s on the go.) “[This] can fully change your financial landscape,” he explains of his delivery gig. “I’ve paid off all my vehicles, paid off the credit card, made some improvements around the house, [and] had a little bit extra money to start putting away in case of emergencies.”

The job also helps Meeks venture away from the sort legislative bubble many politicians find themselves stuck within, and, speaking like a proud uncle, he says it keeps him in touch with young people in the community. “I work with college-aged students who are some of the hardest-working people that I know,” he says. “It changed some of my perceptions on how I saw the next generation. And the same is true on the opposite side. For most of them, I’m the first politician that they’ve ever gotten to know.”

 

P. T. WOOD, Mayor of Salida, Colorado His other gig: Distillery owner, former river guide

The snow-capped tips of the Rockies soar over the main commercial drag of Salida, Colorado, population 5,800, with its stretch of galleries, restaurants, sporting-goods stores, and Wood’s High Mountain Distillery’s bright-blue facade. Co-owned by P. T. Wood, the town’s 53-year-old mayor, the distillery opened in 2012 and produces rye and malt whiskeys, gin, and a wine-based spirit. The tasting room’s exposed-brick interior is adorned with alpine paintings, a kayak hung from the ceiling, and whiskey barrels marked with the distillery’s logo—the distinctive handlebar mustache that Wood sports over a thick gray beard.

Wood, who grew up 150 miles away in Boulder, Colorado, first settled in Salida in the 1980s, as the area was transitioning from an old mining outpost into a tourism hot spot for mountain biking, skiing, fishing, and hiking. He spent his early days working as a guide along the Arkansas River, which runs down the city’s eastern border, and over the years he became more and more involved in public service, joining an initiative to rebuild the town’s river frontage and chairing the city’s planning-and-zoning commission for nearly a decade. After opening Wood’s High Mountain Distillery with his brother, Lee, Wood became frustrated with the way the mayor at the time was running things, so last year he decided to run for office. Wood says that he has prioritized issues like affordable housing, infrastructure, and education, which he says are “standard issues for a growing town in the West.”

Distilling is hard work that’s “very much blue-collar,” Wood explains, and it’s a job that grounds him with working-class Salidans, young transplants, and the town’s business community. On a normal morning, Wood will fire up the still, make calls and send emails, scrub stainless steel tanks, and run through the day’s mayoral agenda while checking for leaks in the whiskey barrels. Wood earns $3,000 a year as mayor, which comes out to $250 a month. “The job doesn’t pay very much, so you kind of have to be retired or have another job,” says the entrepreneur, who sometimes hosts informal city government meetings at the distillery. “Come to think of it, the distillery doesn’t pay a lot either. … I remind myself that [public service] is important and meaningful work. And somebody has to do it.”

 

TROY HEINERT, South Dakota state senator His other gig: Rodeo cowboy

It was Election Night in 2014, and Troy Heinert was saddling up at the Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Heinert had spent months campaigning to become a state senator in South Dakota, and he was now preparing for a pickup-man role at the bronc-riding competition, in which a cowboy straddles a bucking horse as it thrashes and flails in the air. Heinert wasn’t sure if he’d won the election and didn’t have time to check. Then, as the yellow gate swung open, a voice boomed from the speakers above: And from South Dakota, your newly elected state senator from District 26, Troy Heinert!

The 46-year-old has been an outspoken legislator from the time he was first elected as a state representative, in 2012, with priorities that include pushing for better access to health care and education on Native American reservations. South Dakota’s 26th district, which runs along the state’s southern border with Nebraska, includes three Native American reservations, the Lower Brule Sioux and Crow Creek Sioux tribes—which are separated by the winding Missouri River—and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, to which Heinert belongs. Because Heinert makes only $6,000 a year as a state senator, with a per diem of $144, in addition to his gig as a cowboy he moonlights as an education consultant (he’s currently working with a local middle school) and ships live buffalo to reservations across the country.

Rodeo work helps Heinert travel across his district and keep in touch with the daily lives of South Dakotans, many of whom have experience with the rodeo. “When people meet me and I’m all cruddy and dirty from the rodeo and I smell like horses, that’s the true definition of a citizen legislator,” he says, laughing. For Heinert, being a rodeo cowboy “has allowed me to go all over [the state] and experience lots of different areas and see what’s working, see what’s not working in different communities, and bring some of that stuff back.”

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