Wisconsin Speaker Robin Vos was inspired by President Ronald Reagan and former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson to get involved in government while he was in high school and college. After serving 10 years on the Racine County Board, he was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 2004. He is now in his seventh term and has served every other year since 2013 as its speaker.
“I first became active in NCSL because I thought more Republicans should be part of it,” Vos says. “As I became more involved, I realized NCSL is more than just an organization providing resources for state legislators. It provides opportunities to network and make friendships that transcend political party and geographic regions.”
Vos says NCSL’s greatest strength is the essential role it plays in Washington, D.C., “by being a voice for states at the federal level.” He believes NCSL has an even greater role to play given society’s current political polarization. “NCSL has done an excellent job bringing political parties together at a time when some legislators would rather score political points than work across the aisle,” he says. His goal as president is to bolster NCSL’s bipartisan reputation to ensure that legislatures remain strong, coequal branches of state government where people work together to solve tough policy problems.
“NCSL provides a neutral zone,” he says, “where Democrats and Republicans can debate the issues and bridge the political divides to benefit our legislatures, our respective states and ultimately our country as a whole.”
Vos hopes the organization will remain an important bipartisan influence in state legislatures during his presidency. “I have always thought that people of good faith can come together and find solutions on an issue without compromising their ideals,” he says.
Vos has a national reputation as an effective legislator. His staff describe him as determined, hardworking, intelligent, strategic and thoughtful.
A year from now, Vos says, NCSL will “make an even greater impact on legislatures across our country” by listening to its members, making enhancements and delivering essential services.
“I’m looking forward to a wonderful year ahead.”
—Stacy Householder and Julie Lays
Originally a junior high English teacher, Martha Wigton spent one of her summers off stuffing envelopes for a candidate for the Georgia General Assembly. That volunteer job evolved into a full-time job with the freshman legislator, and Wigton left the classroom for the Capitol. Of her nearly 30 years at the legislature, she says, “It’s not my chosen career but everything I’ve ever wished for in a career.”
During her tenure, she’s served in a number of roles in both chambers but found her calling when the incoming House speaker asked Wigton, who at the time was the director of Senate research, to join his staff.
The Honorable Terry Coleman, who chaired the Appropriations Committee for 12 of his 34 years in the House, “had so mastered the appropriations process that he frustrated those of us on the Senate side—he knew where every dollar was.” Noting the part-time legislator’s impressive policy expertise, “it was a great opportunity to learn at the foot of the master.”
She learned well: The Georgia House in 2017 passed a resolution in her honor, commending her for “her unyielding service to the Georgia General Assembly along with her boundless leadership, budgeting, and advisory skills.”
Throughout her career, she’s found great satisfaction in the ability of legislative staff to collaborate in order “to move some pretty positive and impactful policies and programs forward for Georgia. Working with so many people on so many topics … to take an idea and move it all the way to fruition. It’s amazing what people bring to the table, from all walks of life, all perspectives, that represent Georgia.”
The work is not without its challenges, however. Wigton is frustrated by the “sheer lack of understanding of what we [staff] do and how well we do it.” She also notes the widespread “myth of government being wasteful,” but counters “we’re so good at doing more with less.”
“The vast majority [of staff is] so committed to making our state better – with their time and sacrifice and resources. That story really doesn’t get told.”
She wants to change the narrative and is excited about the possibilities of her roles as NCSL staff chair. Her goal is to empower legislative staffers across the country through engagement in NCSL. “I’m such a fan of NCSL’s ability to bolster staff through genuinely exceptional training opportunities.”
“Increasing staff engagement [in NCSL] really helps us become professional staff armed with technical skills, strong communication skills, to promote the institution and its members, to regain public confidence. We are the foot soldiers for that. We can only do that if we’re trained well and have expertise in our area, and NCSL gives us that.”
An empowered staff can “tell a positive story and promote the institution. [It’s] all about fighting the myth that politics are bad—because staff fall in to that category by default … We need to tell a different story, louder, better—and with force—so people will engage.”
Stacy Householder is NCSL’s director of leadership, training and international programs; Julie Lays is the editor of State Legislatures magazine; Holly South is a policy specialist.