The 5 Types of Politicians You’ll Meet

By Bradley Tusk  |  December 16, 2015

You came up with your idea. You turned it into a compelling pitch. You got into YC. You teamed up with some good engineers. The platform looks great. Demo day went well. You got some funding. Things are on their way — until some regulator or politician tells you they’re not. For many startups, this is an unfortunate reality. And for anyone creating a new company or service in fields like energy, banking, transportation, gaming, education, health care, food, agriculture, or even just selling any product or service to consumers, you’re invariably going to end up having to deal with government, either directly or indirectly, in some way, shape or form.

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So now fast forward. You’ve come to grips with the idea that you have to deal with this government problem you’re facing (which means time and money). You have a GC who knows a little about politics. You have them hire a lobbyist who tells you to go to meetings, not to upset anyone, and to write checks for campaign contributions. But you know in your gut that just trying a bunch of different tactics without an underlying strategy of how you get from point A to point B probably won’t work (it never does). To figure out how to get a regulator or an elected official to do what you want (which could mean blocking a bad bill or proposed regulation, passing a bill or regulation, it could mean awarding you a contract or grant, giving you a license, or saying you don’t need a license), you first need to understand whom you’re dealing with and what will make them see things your way.

In our experience, there are typically five types of politicians to account for (regulators differ but they’re almost always appointed by or accountable to someone who was elected):

1.The rare breed. This group reflects the 5–10% who truly take their job satisfaction by getting things done (think Mike Bloomberg). Keep in mind, every politician will say that all they care about is getting things done, but for 90–95% of them, that’s not actually true. This is the group you’ll find easiest to work with because they’re most likely to respond to the actual logic of your ideas. It’s also, sadly, the group you’ll encounter least.

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2. The typical pol. This group (at least 75% of all politicians out there) needs the job to validate their insecurities. The press and trappings of the job are essential to their self-worth and that’s why they’ll always do whatever it takes to keep the job (ahead of getting things done) because they can’t live without it. On one hand, this group is the most susceptible to the entrenched interests you’re fighting because they put such a premium on campaign cash. On the other hand, this group tends to make decisions based on things like winning the news cycle or seeing a good poll or avoiding a bad story, so with the right approach, arguments and tools, moving them to the right place is often very achievable.

3. The ideologue. This can be either perfect or massively problematic. They’re true believers (think Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz) and ideology factors most into their decision-making, sometimes ahead of common sense or even electoral politics. If you can convince them that your idea/view/position fits their own, you’re in great shape. If you can’t, things get difficult and you’re forced to do what Uber did (mount an expensive, all-consuming, scorched earth campaign) this past summer when they had to force Mayor de Blasio in NYC to abandon his plan to cap their growth.

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4. The “I’m just happy to be here”. This group splits into two categories. The first are politicians who won, don’t have particularly strong views on anything, don’t care all that much about the end result, and aren’t particularly ambitious — they just want to get through the day without too much trouble. The second group is comprised of politicians who (in some ways, not irrationally) see their job as winning office and that the actual job of governing is someone else’s problem. They just have no interest in your problem or issue unless it can help them in their next campaign. The first group is where lobbyists are often the most useful. The second can require a more multi-faceted approach (earned media, ads, grassroots, social, polling) so that they see the harm they’d face if they refuse to do the right thing.

5. The corrupt pol. Despite perceptions and despite the last few weeks in New York, there aren’t that many of these (at least compared to the total number of elected officials across the country). But they do exist and if you find yourself in a situation where you’re being asked to write a check or hire someone or give someone a contract directly in return for their support, don’t try to outsmart them and don’t try to thread the needle. Just have your lawyers call the relevant prosecutor and let them handle it (it may be problematic politically for what you’re trying to achieve but it’s a lot better than sacrificing your integrity or being embroiled in an investigation).

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So as you’re thinking about the regulatory problem slowing you down, think about who you’re dealing with, what they’re like, what they care about, and how your solution aligns with their political and policy ambitions. Doing that isn’t a guarantee for success, but not doing it is an excellent predictor for failure.

One final point: just as there’s no single type of politician, there’s also no single solution to anything (there’s also rarely a very easy solution to a hard problem and when a political insider tells you they can just fix it, ask more questions immediately). Every jurisdiction, every issue, every politician and regulator is different, and each requires independent thought and analysis. It’s time consuming, often expensive and even more often frustrating, if you want to win, it’s the best way to go.