Staying Neutral in Today’s Hyper-Partisan Climate
The only thing I like writing about more than paint is politics. It’s my forte. Political commentaries were what I cut my teeth on. The cluttered office mess I call Gatcomb Central Command is a noisy place. Cable news is on 24 hours a day. People call to ask my take on some breaking bombshell. Friends stop in to drink my bourbon and pick my brain on recent political developments. My signed photos of various politicians hang nearby, always reminding me what I’m fighting for…and against. Heck, my personal Five-Year Plan culminates with me becoming the 76th Governor of the State of Maine. (I’ve already picked “The Spirit of 76” as my campaign slogan.)
Here we are in another election year. By the time you read this, the perpetual campaigning will be in full-swing and the riotous mudslinging will be reminiscent of Woodstock ’94. One of my pen names (probably Biff Wellington) will undoubtedly come out of hibernation to write long, vicious diatribes about various candidates and issues…but ol’ Erick is staying out of it. Mostly. No, I haven’t gone soft. You’re more than welcome to pop in for a glass of Kentucky’s finest and some heated conversation, but don’t ask me to discuss politics during work hours.
It’s Just Too Easy
Friends and family will tell you that I don’t even need a few drinks and imaginary soapbox to steer friendly conversation into the ever-divisive realm of politics. I have core beliefs and unwavering convictions that define me as a private citizen and dictate how I live my life and manage my company. But I’ve also got this thing about allowing clients to know too much about me. Or better yet, not allowing it.
Not to sound like some grizzled old whiskey-soaked gambler from a Kenny Rogers song, but I am known to enjoy the occasional card game, so not tipping my hand comes as second nature. To me, it just makes sense to protect my cards—my privacy—whenever possible. Just like in dating, maintaining a bit of mystery is often the secret to success in business.
I might be a Bleeding-Heart Liberal or a War-Mongering Conservative, a Free-The-Weed Libertarian or a Hammer-and-Sickle-Wielding Communist. (Silly stereotypes added to lighten the mood.) I could be a member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) or I might be a member of P.E.T.A. (People Eating Tasty Animals). Am I a vigilant recycler or do I burn paint thinner-soaked tires in my backyard? When a tree falls in the forest, it surely makes a sound. But what do I hear? Do I fall to my knees and cry when I hear the scream of the tree’s soul leaving its noble body? Or do I smile at the sound of hard-working loggers supplying lumber to the building industry? My clients will probably never know.
If I Respected Your Opinion, I Would Have It
There’s an old saying about how opinions are like…what was it? Bellybuttons? Everyone’s got one! We tradesfolk are no different. Sure, we painters sometimes seem pretty Zen, swinging our brushes without a care in the world, but we each have a stake in our collective future and as such, we each have a bellybutton and an opinion. We worry. We get angry. We rejoice. We ponder what we’re leaving to future generations.
These are strange times we’re living in. Some argue that politics and religion have seemingly melded to become one and the same. We are vulgarly polarized, and I never thought simply expressing a differing opinion would be grounds for verbal or physical assault. for boycotting a business or product, for looting and rioting, or for carrying out violent, malicious attacks against complete strangers.
You see, as tradesfolk, we work for everyone. We work for Democrats and Republicans and those crazy folks that still hold out hope that the ill-fated American Vegetarian Party will rise again to ban meat, alcohol and tobacco. (Now that’s a Civil War in the making!) Remember: people on both sides of the aisle have money and work that needs to be done, and the wise business owner who enjoys making a profit will always be willing to cater to both sides.
Because we work for people of all persuasions, my Old Man adhered to the timeless adage about discussing religion and politics on the jobsite: don’t. No matter what you say, you’ll potentially alienate half your client base and coworkers. And he was right.
Don’t get me wrong, partisan chitchat isn’t always a bad thing. Homeowners will occasionally broach politics, and I don’t mind lightly engaging when we’re on the same page. It can be a powerful marketing tool. I’ve found that clients are delighted to find the painter is a fellow member of some organization or political party. It strengthens the bond, turning a professional relationship into something a bit closer, and they’ll tell their like-minded friends to hire you because you’re a fellow card-carrying member of the such-and-such association. But being a multifaceted fellow, I don’t want my personal views to creep into my business and inevitably define it.
Sure, I’m always up for Respectful Political Discourse but like Hot Chili or Congressional Ethics, that’s kind of become an oxymoron, hasn’t it?
While I personally can separate work from politics, I’ve witnessed homeowners and tradesfolk who can’t. Things can get awkward when a customer has the sudden epiphany that you are on the opposite end of the political or social spectrum. Your professional relationship may change altogether, perhaps to the point of the homeowner choosing to contract with someone else. Or maybe the painter is so incensed by the faded political sticker on a prospective client’s car that he or she jacks the price up to the outer reaches of the stratosphere. It shouldn’t be that way, but it frequently is. As you no doubt recognize, the era of middle ground is vanishing; people try to feel so strongly about every possible issue (and nonissue) that it consumes them. This country is severely torn, and the divide seems to grow larger by the day. You’ll forgive me if I don’t want to put an unbridgeable chasm between myself and a client.
As strongly as I feel about issues and candidates, I don’t badge anything when it comes to work. In 2016, there were no MAGA hats or Hillary buttons. There were no Feel the Bern bumper stickers on a Gatcomb Painting & Design van. There have never been references to political issues in our company newsletter and there never will be. When dealing with clients, the only issue I publicly take an unwavering, hardline stance on is promising a top-notch job for an honest wage. Regardless of their political affiliation, homeowners will generally be on board with your uncompromising position on offering quality work.
Vote—For a Quality Paint Job!
Sometimes I think painters deserve far more reverence than politicians. Politicians are supposed to crumble and fade away in a short amount of time (*cough* term limits), but your paint job shouldn’t. Painters may not yet rule the world but perhaps they should—most professionals I know are so committed to making their clients happy that Congress could stand to take a few notes. After all, a painter never forgets who’s signing the check. Perhaps this great country would benefit from a detailed proposal, full of what-ifs and potential add-ons, based on a solid budget and offering a guarantee of the work to be done. A pork- and earmark-free contract without wasteful spending. (I have yet to find a paint contractor who tacks $500k onto his bill to study whether taking selfies makes painters happy…or $250k to send his employees to Dollywood. I’m looking at you, Congress!) Freedom to fire at-will and on-the-spot if you’re unhappy with the job. And a warranty. As clients hold the painting contractor to their proposal (and you know they do) so should the American Citizenry hold the feet of their elected leaders to the fire.
It’s too bad the political landscape is so divided, but thank goodness it’s not like that in the painting world. I shudder at the thought of painters being existentially torn on some mundane issue. (You know, like who makes the best exterior primer, or The Great Graco versus Titan Debate.)
But it is what it is. We’ve got Midterm Elections coming up in November and we’re in for a wild ride. Stop by for political banter. Email me for my predictions on the anticipated Blue Wave/Red Tsunami title bout. Engage me on social media. But for the love of (insert favorite candidate here), don’t bring it to the jobsite!
Erick Gatcomb is owner of Gatcomb Painting & Design, Hancock, Maine.