By Katie Ziegler
David Long, who rose to become the Senate pro tem in Indiana, remembers an early meeting in his legislative career. He asked to talk with the chair of the finance committee to discuss the state’s income tax law and proceeded to tell him “how dumb aspects of it were.”
He then asked who wrote the law and the chairman said, “I did.”
That’s just one example of lessons learned from four legislative leaders who participated in “What I Wish I Knew,” a two-part series for NCSL's podcast, “Our American States,” The legislators shared stories about misperceptions and mistakes they made in those early days, with a goal of providing advice to the hundreds of new state legislators across the country.
Current NCSL President and Illinois Senator Toi Hutchinson (D) remembers the “big disconnect between what people think legislators do and what legislators actually do.” Utah Senator Curt Bramble (R) thought politics was a rough-and-tumble sport and that he “needed to come out of the starting gates being very aggressive.”
Former New Hampshire House Speaker Terie Norelli (D) regrets when she agreed to speak too soon about a measure and was “certainly not as prepared as I could have been.”
The series offers key advice to state legislators just starting their careers. The leaders talk about how to make the most of committee assignments, what to do when talking on the chamber floor, and the importance of keeping in touch with constituents. “Something has to be different or better because I was there, even if it’s just for that one person,” Hutchinson notes.
Finding mentors right away made a difference for all the leaders. Long, a Republican, believed in it so strongly that he set up a mentorship program when he became the Senate leader. “It’s important to have someone you can bounce ideas off of and talk to confidentially and ask, ‘Why is this happening? What’s the history of this?’ They’ll tell you,” he says.
Bramble says interacting with lobbyists is a skill new legislators must learn. “If a person is a paid lobbyist, recognize that they’re paid for their opinion,” he advises. The leaders also offer expertise in media relations and highlight the critical importance of legislative staff.
They all agree that developing relationships with members of a caucus, the other party, legislators in the other chamber and the governor’s office is critical to a legislator’s success. “I think the most important thing is remembering why you’re there," Norelli says. "Sometimes in the heat of things, it truly can feel like a game, a sport.”
Listen to Part 1 and Part 2 of the podcast series. Transcripts are also available. The discussion will be published in the March/April edition of NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine.
Katie Ziegler is the program manager of NCSL's Women's Legislative Network.