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.
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.
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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.”
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.”