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Getting Personal

Getting Personal:  May 2011

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May 2011 magazine graphic for Getting Personal article - holding up desk

Legislative aides who work directly for lawmakers are a growing force in statehouses.

By Angela Andrews

A week before Shannon Watson-Borden started her job as the legislative assistant to Minnesota Senator Roger Reinert, she purposely got lost in the Capitol so she could figure out how to navigate through the building.

Why? She was bracing for a fast transition into her new role and needed to learn her way around and find the resources available to her. As the senator’s only aide, she’s responsible for helping her boss, managing his office and dealing with constituents. Her duties range from answering phones to providing research to prepping her boss for meetings.  

Watson-Borden is not alone. Of the 34,000 staffers who work in our nation’s state legislatures, about one-third are personal staffers. They work directly for a legislator or are part of a team reporting directly to the legislator. More than 60 of the 99 legislative chambers employ personal staffers.

That wasn’t always the case. Personal staff used to work only in large, full-time legislatures, such as California, New York and Pennsylvania. The legislative reform movement that got into full swing in the 1970s and ’80s brought personal staff to many more legislatures and became one of the prominent staffing trends as the century ended.  As lawmakers responsibilities increased—including a new emphasis on constituent services—personal staffers became an essential tool. 

“My job is to make my boss more efficient,” Watson-Borden says, “so he can dedicate his time to the things that only a senator can do—voting, committee work and meeting with constituents.”
In fact, personal staffers do much more than make their boss efficient. They are the “right hand of the member,” says Dianne Russell, director of legislative assistants in the North Carolina House. “They help constituents cut through the red tape and are the central resource for the member.”

Schedules To Policy Advice 

Legislative assistants “want to be part of something bigger than themselves,” says Russell.

Although they may share that goal, the work and the roles they play can vary widely from state to state and chamber to chamber. These differences can include their responsibilities, where they conduct their work, and the staff-to-legislator ratio in the chamber.

Riley Weber is the administrative assistant to two Arizona representatives, Javin “J.D.” Mesnard and Justin Olson. His position is nonpartisan; he works at the discretion of the speaker, and is hired and placed by the chief clerk of the House.

His duties include filtering e-mails, answering phone calls, talking to constituents about problems, scheduling, and preparing his bosses for committee meetings and floor actions. As he describes it, his tasks include “just about anything to make their job easier.” There is a limit, however, to Weber’s work. As a nonpartisan aide, he does not provide policy advice.

At the other end of the spectrum, handling policy issues is Jason Baxter’s main responsibility for Texas Senator Tommy Williams. As Williams’ legislative director, Baxter manages three staff members who support the senator by analyzing legislation and conducting in-depth legislative research prior to filing bills. Baxter also briefs the senator on floor and committee work before he votes and tracks the senator’s legislation as it moves through the process, which he likens to “directing traffic.”

Baxter is one of 14 staff members who work in Williams’ Capitol office and two district offices. In Texas, senators receive a monthly allocation of $35,626 a month for personal staff salaries and in-state staff travel expenses, and are responsible for hiring their staff. Most Texas personal staff work year round.

Lawmaker's "Face and Voice"

Somewhere in the middle is the aide who is the sole staff member for a lawmaker, including Betty DeBenedictis, legislative aide to Massachusetts Representative Thomas Calter.

“Almost everything gets filtered or returned to me to respond to, file or follow up,” she says. Her responsibilities, in addition to those described by Weber and Baxter, include coordinating office hours and preparing press releases, maintaining the member’s website and the constituent database, and communicating with all levels of government to help resolve constituent issues.

Personal staffers do more than sort through e-mail, monitor legislation and keep their boss on track.

“Legislative assistants are invaluable,” says North Carolina’s Russell. “They are the face and voice of the representative.”

Personal staff members often are the first person constituents or lobbyists speak to when they call a lawmaker’s office. Their demeanor and actions reflect on their boss.

Their position enables the legislator to be in two places—or more—at a time. Such was the case with freshman Massachusetts Representative Angelo D’Emilia, who couldn’t attend his first set of prescheduled district office hours because of a last-minute committee hearing. His veteran aide, Kristyn Taylor, stepped in to attend on his behalf. “Kristyn didn’t blink an eye when I asked her to cover my office hours, and she probably did a better job than me,” D’Emilia says. 

Oregon Senator Suzanne Bonamici agrees. “Constituents know there’s someone to talk to if I’m unavailable,” says Bonamici, who has one full-time and one part-time aide. She also believes her aides have a presence and connection with constituents.

Staffers say ideological conflict is not a problem. “When I’m on the clock, I’m his position,” says Holly Herman, who has served as Virginia Senator Emmett Hanger’s legislative aide for 15 years.

Massachusetts’ DeBenedictis believes, however, that having the same perspective makes it easier to get across her boss’ stance on the issues. “Believing in the information you convey makes for a more powerful delivery,” she says.

Both Oregon’s Bonamici and Massachusetts’ D’Emilia say they can learn about a potential aide’s policy views from the interview process, but that’s not their key criterion in hiring. “I looked for someone with legislative experience, someone who’s been a staffer for a while,” says D’Emilia. “I knew I would have a learning curve and didn’t want an aide with a learning curve.”

Making a Difference

Juggling responsibilities. Chasing the never ending “to-do” list. Understanding the legislative process. And, at times, being unable to help constituents.

Personal staffers see these as their key challenges. The fast-paced environment of the legislature, coupled with constituent demands, often require long hours. After starting her job at the Massachusetts House, DeBenedictis learned “you can work 50 or even 70 hours a week and still have unfinished work.”

Texas’ Baxter, who worked in the Texas House before joining the Senate,  knew the legislative ropes, but quickly learned that knowing the history of the Senate rules and how the Senate developed was important, too.

The rewards of legislative staff jobs vary. For some, it’s a chance to constantly learn—about the process, the institution, or how to help constituents. For others, it’s the unique environment and the constant change that keeps them energized. For Arizona’s Weber, however, it’s the satisfaction he gains knowing his bosses trust him. “I used to work in marketing and my previous employers were always looking over my shoulder. Here, I know my bosses trust me,” he says.

For nearly all personal staff members, constituent services are at the heart of what they do.

“I discovered that the bulk of my work is spent doing constituent service,” says  DeBenedictis, “and that a phone call from a legislator’s office more often than not will produce faster results for constituents than if they call on their own.”

Personal staffers are problem-solvers. They hear from citizens, many of whom are at their wits’ end and feel they have exhausted all their options. “Helping constituents is the most rewarding part of my job,” Weber says. “They don’t know who to turn to, but finally they reach a live person and are appreciative.”

They also shape how the public looks at government, not a small thing at a time when people expect their representatives to do more with less.

“I make sure constituents have a positive experience,” say Herman, “because not everyone has a positive perception of government.”

Check out more about personal staff at www.ncsl.org/magazine.

Angela Andrews is NCSL’s liaison to the Personal Staff Network.

 

By the Numbers

  • Personal staffers are employed in more than 60 legislative chambers, although hiring policies and work situations vary by state, chamber and legislator.
  • In 17 legislative chambers, the staff-to-member ratio is one staff to one legislator. This is the most common situation.
  • In at least 11 chambers two, three or more personal staffers work for one member.
  • In 14 chambers, one personal staffer works for two, three or more members.
  • More than nine chambers allocate money to legislators to hire personal staff. The legislator determines how many to hire.
  • In 22 chambers, leaders, upper level management staff or an administrative committee hires personal staff.
  • In more than 40, personal staffers work year-around.
  • In 12 chambers, some personal staff work year-around and some only during session

 

Personal Staff Map

 

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