They began their legislative careers in 1975—young, eager and committed; and their wisdom continues to guide them today.
By Morgan Cullen
Nine lawmakers from the “freshman class” of 1975—the same year NCSL was founded—are still serving in their state legislatures today. What does it take to have that kind of staying power? Here are three of their stories.
For Representative Calvin Smyre, public service has always been about community. He cut his teeth in politics at Fort Valley University, where he and some friends in student government created a public service organization called the Leaders of Today and Tomorrow. The group worked with the local police, fire departments and businesses to organize some community-based projects.
Smyre’s participation in this grassroots organization first inspired him to run for the state legislature. “When word got out that our state legislator had decided not to seek reelection, community leaders who had recognized my volunteer work began encouraging me to run,” he says. “After considering it, I thought, what the heck.” So at age 26, Calvin Smyre became the youngest member of the Georgia House of Representatives
After earning a B.S. in business administration, his career path has taken him from being director of a “War on Poverty” program in Columbus, Ga., to executive vice president of corporate external affairs at Synovus, a diversified financial services holding company voted into “The 100 Best Companies to Work for” in America by Fortune magazine.
As Georgia’s longest-serving state legislator, Smyre is often referred to as the “Dean of the House,” and many of his younger colleagues often come to him for guidance. Smyre tells them first to learn the parliamentary rules of the Legislature. “It is pretty difficult to play ball if you don’t know the rules of the game” he says.
“When I was first elected to the Georgia House, there were 155 Democrats and 25 Republicans. Today, only 60 Democrats are serving in the House. It is always a challenge when you are in the minority, no matter what party you belong to,” he says.
“You have to find ways to pass legislation that your constituents care about, which means building coalitions across party lines to get things done. Being divisive and ideological will get you nowhere.”
He serves on the Appropriations, Higher Ed, and the Rules committees and is chairman of the House minority caucus. He’s proud of his work on making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a state holiday, developing the Georgia Dome for the Atlanta Falcons football team and creating a new Georgia State Flag.
In 1980, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution selected him one of the “Ten Best Legislators” in the state, and in 1986 he became the first African-American administrative floor leader in the country. His hometown of Columbus, where he first learned what community was all about, has honored him twice as “Citizen of the Year.”
When reminiscing about the “good old days,” what he misses most, he says, is a respectful tone and sense of civility within the General Assembly. These days, he says, those attributes appear lacking in both parties.
“I tried to be fair and inclusive
and serve the entire Senate on
both sides of the aisle.”
—MIinnesota Senator James P. Metzen
Senator James Metzen’s list of legislative accomplishments is as long as his tenure in office. While growing up in Dakota County, his dad served on the city council and was a county commissioner, so politics was in his blood. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in business administration, he had a brief stint as a semi-pro hockey goalie before beginning a career in banking. He was vice-president of community affairs at Key Community Bank before he retired.
His introduction to politics came in 1967 when he was elected to the South St. Paul City Council, where his father had served. From there, he ran for the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1974 at age 30, and moved 12 years later to the Senate, where he has served for the past 28 years.
During his Senate career, Metzen has garnered a reputation for being fair and willing to work with both parties—traits he put to good use when serving as Senate president from 2003 to 2011.
“I tried to be fair and inclusive and serve the entire Senate on both sides of the aisle. I would often let my Republican colleagues participate and even appointed them to chair committees,” he says.
Like Smyre, Metzen can grow wistful when reflecting on his long career and the institution he has spent a lifetime serving. “The partisanship has gotten really bad over the past 10 years, and it has made the job more challenging.”
When asked why it’s worse today, he suggests that “some of the ethics rules that were created to prevent conflicts of interest have gone too far and left little opportunity for our members to get to know each other.”
“We used to be able to attend sponsored social events after we adjourned for the day that offered us a chance to talk, learn from each other and compromise. We are not allowed to do that anymore.”
Still, Metzen has no regrets. Looking back over the last 40 years, he says, “I would do it again in a heartbeat. Having the opportunity to serve the citizens of St. Paul and Minnesota has been one of the best experiences of my life.”
“When I was first elected, race
was the single biggest issue facing
South Carolina. But that is no longer the case. Today, the main issue is poverty.”
—South Carolina Senator John W. Matthews Jr.
Both within and outside of the South Carolina Capitol, Senator John Matthew’s passion has always been education. Before he served in the legislature, he was a public school teacher and administrator. It was the experience, as a young teacher, he says, that shaped his perspective on what is needed to lift people out of poverty: a good education and a little money.
Access to high-quality education and economic opportunities—particularly for minorities—were the issues Matthews first ran on, and they have continued to be the focus of his legislative career. He was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1975 to 1984 and has been a state senator since 1985. Currently, he serves on seven legislative committees.
“When I was first elected, race was the single biggest issue facing South Carolina. But that is no longer the case. Today, the main issue is poverty,” Matthews says.
“Over the decades I have spent in office, many doors that were once closed to African-Americans have now been opened. But in order to walk through them ... access to education, vocational skills and economic opportunities must be available,” he says.
Matthews is a firm believer in taking personal responsibility for one’s own life, but he also has seen how people can come together and hammer out solutions to common concerns.
Championing the need to better the education and economic welfare of every citizen in the state has been the hallmark of Matthews’ 40-year career. “I believe the results speak for themselves,” he says.
“When I was first elected, my district was underdeveloped; today, it is moderately developed. Both per capita income and educational attainment have risen substantially over the past four decades. Looking back, I’d like to think I was a part of that, a part of helping move South Carolina forward.”
Many apparently agree, since he has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Distinguished Alumni Award from South Carolina State University; Democrat of the Year from Orangeburg County; Minority Business Advocate of the Year from the U.S. Small Business Administration; induction into the South Carolina Black Hall of Fame; and two honorary doctorate degrees.
Morgan Cullen is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Legislative Management Department.