Behind the Scenes: Samantha Harkins
Samantha Harkins is chief of staff for Lansing Mayor Andy Schor. She joined his staff before his inauguration in January and previously worked with Schor for four years at the Michigan Municipal League, a collaboration of officials from municipalities across the state. Harkins also worked in government in Norfolk, Virginia, and in the Michigan House of Representatives.
How do you define the role of Chief of Staff?
Chiefs of Staff are often referred to as “gatekeepers,” and that’s certainly a part of the role. But I really am the mayor’s right-hand person: I’m a sounding board, manager of city staff, person who ensures things get done.
For you, what’s the appeal of working behind the scenes in government?
The key to a great elected official is surrounding oneself with good people. Mayor Schor is everywhere: at city hall, at community meetings, at business events. He has to have people around him that he trusts to ensure things are done. I love being one of those people. It’s the best of all worlds. I get to help make the decisions. But, unlike the mayor, people don’t recognize me everywhere.
You grew up and went to school in West Virginia and worked in government there before coming to Michigan. What stands out to you about Lansing and Michigan — what makes it distinct from other places you’ve worked and visited?
Having worked and lived in other states really provides me with an interesting perspective. Michigan has a very unique local government structure, and we have a lot of local government units. In other states in which I’ve worked, there was sometimes conflict between other local units, but the sheer number in Michigan makes it a different challenge. We’re surrounded by three urban townships and a city here in Lansing, and the city actually lies in two counties. It certainly makes regionalism more challenging, but I would argue more necessary.
Now that the Schor administration has been underway for several months, what would you say is your greatest achievement to date?
Communicating during the flood in February. It was overwhelming to have a state of emergency six weeks into the new administration, and our team stepped up. Communication is extremely important to the mayor, and he set that tone early on. I’m proud of our communication both internally and externally. While communication doesn’t stop flood waters, I think it helped our residents and businesses understand all the work we were doing to mitigate damage.
What can Lansing residents expect next from their government?
They can expect to be heard. The mayor created the Department of Neighborhoods and Citizen Engagement to work with our many neighborhoods and ensure that we are engaging everyone in the city. We created a Citizen Advocate in our office, who is the point person for those in the community. We know we won’t always make everyone happy, but we can promise that we will actively engage everyone, even those who don’t agree with the mayor.
What’s the best way for residents to be heard by their elected officials?
I can only speak for the mayor’s office, but reach out to our Citizen Advocate with any concerns. Participate in regular events such as our Walking Wednesdays (neighborhood walking tours), quarterly Housing and Resource Summits and other community meetings. Also, be positive. Not every issue is positive, but I believe a positive or proactive approach resonates more than negativity.
You’re very active online both professionally and personally. How does tweeting and blogging play a part in your job?
If it doesn’t happen on social media, did it actually happen? I’m only being slightly facetious. I started my running blog (irunthesetowns.blogspot.com) seven years ago, and it’s morphed into a bigger thing. I wanted to be a journalist most of my life (changed majors my junior year of college), and I love writing. My blog is a form of therapy, and I love the challenge of communicating on Twitter (@sjharkins) with a limitation of characters. Social media is a great way to connect with the community, and I think it’s a critical part of my job (and I’d argue most jobs).
In your blog you’ve talked about trying to find that elusive work/life balance. Any suggestions for other working moms trying to do the same thing?
I’m still figuring it out, but thus far it’s been so important to find quiet time to reset. It might be getting up early to do yoga, going for a run or having a quiet cup of coffee while my husband and son are still sleeping. The pace of this job is blistering and having a few moments of quiet makes all the difference.
You’re also a dedicated runner. Where’s the best place to run in Lansing, and why?
The River Trail is the easy answer, and I’ve run many, many training miles on the trail. But my absolute favorite place is Mount Hope Cemetery. It has the best hills in the city, and it’s a beautiful place where I can reflect peacefully.
Is there anything you want readers to know about you?
I love working for this city, and I am dedicated to making it a better place. It is a dream to work for the city in which I’ve lived for 11 years and to work for someone whom I believe in.
This conversation with Samantha Harkins has been edited for space and clarity.