By Katie Ziegler
Personal staff work directly for a state legislator, in either the capitol or in a district office. They are the ultimate jack-of-all-trades, managing a legislator’s constituent requests, policy work, schedule, and everything in between.
NCSL chatted with Dave Schinzel, staff to Nebraska Senator Sara Howard (NP), about his path to public service and working in the nation’s only unicameral, nonpartisan legislature.
How did you come to work in the Legislature?
I have actually worked in the Legislature two different times. I had gone to school at George Washington University and I had worked on Capitol Hill during that time. I decided I wanted to work for state Senator Peter Hoagland, whom I greatly admired, in the Legislature so I moved back to Nebraska. I was able to work his last session in the Legislature as he decided not to seek re-election. I worked the 1987 session for newly elected Senator Frank Korshoj. I left the Legislature in 1987 to once again work for Peter Hoagland as he ran for Congress in 1988. After 20 years, I returned to the Legislature in 2005 to work for Senator Gwen Howard when she was elected. After she was term limited out in 2012, her daughter Sara Howard was elected to her seat and I remained to work for her which I have done for the past 6 years.
What do you find enjoyable and rewarding about working in the legislature? What is unique about Nebraska?
The most rewarding part of the job is being able to find solutions to issues that help people. I have been fortunate to work for legislators who prioritized putting people first. It is a good feeling when you are able to help someone find a resolution to a problem or see the results of your work in state law. Since each legislative district is relatively small in size (35,000 people), it is easy for people to personally know their state senator. With only one house, each senator is the only direct link people have to state government as we do not have multiple people elected to the Legislature from the same area.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I have been interested in politics since I was 12 years old. I volunteered for campaigns in high school, including for Peter Hoagland when he first ran for the Legislature in 1978. I knew I wanted to study politics and history in college so it was only natural that I wanted to go to college in Washington, D.C. I was lucky enough to go to George Washington University, which is second to none when it comes to the study of politics, and I was able to work for the Agriculture Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives while I was in school.
Who do you look up to as a role model?
Of course, my most important role models were my parents and grandparents. But my professional role model was without question Peter Hoagland. There are two things he said to me that have stayed with me over the years. The first was that he was never worried about his votes because it was never hard to do the right thing. He knew how to play political hardball when necessary, but he told me he would rather lose an election voting the right way than win one voting the wrong way. I know many say that, but he actually lived by it. After he was one of the many House members that lost in the 1994 wave election by only 1,600 votes, he said he did not regret one vote he had cast when everyone knew his vote on health care probably lost him the election. Traditionally, Peter had always gone to speak to high school government students at his alma mater Central High School. I assumed that he would not want to do this again after losing the election, since no one was expecting him to come speak. He said he was going to keep the speaking engagement because it was important for the students to understand how our democracy works and to realize that even if you do not win every election, it is important to stay involved.
What does it take to be an effective leader?
Too often we think whoever can be the loudest or most shocking gets all of the public attention. It seems to have gotten worse in recent years. But in the end, I still believe the most effective leaders are the ones who are willing to do the hard work behind the scenes, listen to the input of others, and know what they are talking about. In the end, the loud voices come and go and we quickly forget who they were or what they were talking about. Rather, it is the dedicated, hardworking legislators that change lives and make our state a better place to live.
What book is on your nightstand?
I enjoy reading American history, especially books about the Civil War and the American Revolution. I am currently reading “America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation,” which deals with the many events that happened that year.
Katie Ziegler manages NCSL’s Women’s Legislative Network and member outreach programs.