It's All Relative



Father/daughter combination from Maryland: Senator Bryan Simonaire and Delegate Meagan Simonaire.


Serving in a legislature with a family member offers unique opportunities and presents unexpected challenges. Meet four lawmakers who make it work.

By Megan McClure

A willingness to collaborate, keep an open mind, put aside differences and listen to other viewpoints are qualities that come to mind when thinking of what it takes to be a successful legislator, especially in today’s tense partisan environment. When speaking to lawmakers who share family ties, the cultivation of these qualities appears to come naturally.

About 25 sets of cousins, children, spouses, parents, uncles or grandchildren are serving as legislators. This is the first in a series of articles that will profile some of these special duos around the country.

Aisle-Land Hopping

For many Americans, politics is at the top of their list of topics to avoid at family gatherings. For legislators serving with family members, however, that is the topic of discussion. And, usually, it’s conflict free, as most belong to the same party and share similar political persuasions.

In Hawaii, however, a rare pair of lawmakers with family ties come to issues from different chambers and different sides of the aisle. Representative Cynthia Thielen is a Republican; her daughter Senator Laura Thielen is a Democrat. The fact that a Republican representative mother can get along so well with her Democratic senator daughter has “surprised some,” the representative says. But, she adds with a smile, “Hawaii is different from the mainland, obviously.”

The Thielens credit their success as state legislators to the support and encouragement they have received from their family. Many have urged and encouraged both women on their political journeys. The representative describes the support her late husband—“a solid Eisenhower-type Republican”—gave his daughter, even though she was running as a Democrat. “My husband, Mickey, was a good influence in our lives. And he was extremely proud of his daughter Laura. One of the last things he did … was to pull the nomination papers for Laura to run again for the state Senate.”

Senator Thielen says that choosing to join the Democratic Party wasn’t difficult, even though her parents were Republicans.

“My parents are what I call old-school Republicans. My mother is a strong environmentalist and refers to herself as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. My father was a small-business man, who always put his employees first. So to me it seemed the best party to honor those values at the time I came of voting age was the Democratic Party.”

It was her concern and passion for the environment and Hawaii’s natural resources that spurred Senator Thielen to run for office. “I was angry with the Legislature for passing an extremely reckless land use law,” she says, “and then nearly passing an even more damaging bill. I ran because I felt these decisions did not represent the community I lived in.”

Bipartisanship Comes Naturally

Bipartisanship is the norm for the Thielens and campaigning is a family affair. “Two of my brothers are Democrats, one is a Republican. But at the end of the day, we all put family first,” the senator says. “Everyone helps in both campaigns, because we all value honest, ethical and hardworking politicians.”

The mother-daughter pair collaborate at work as well. “We work together very well on constituent services and frequently get more than twice as much work done than we would have on our own,” the senator says.

Both Thielens are attorneys experienced in and passionate about land use, renewable energy and environmental law. Those issues are what drove them to run for elective office. Each wanted to have more direct influence over the type of legislation passed, rather than litigating after the fact, and together they make a formidable force in the Hawaii Legislature.

“As an environmental attorney,” Representative Thielen says, “I had successfully sued the state in a number of land use cases and decided a better way to make a difference would be to become a policymaker. So I challenged an incumbent Democrat and won.” That was 25 years ago.

The representative is passionate about renewable energy because the islands have “so many powerful natural resources—wave, sun, wind and geothermal—coupled with the highest electric prices in the nation.” Her experience on the topic has lled her to champion innovative technologies. “As I have learned more about wave-energy converters, and that Hawaii’s wave climate is one of the best in the world, I ramped up my involvement in and support for this technology, resulting in two converters now operating offshore in the district I represent.”

The representative also has worked on legislation to allow “industrial hemp to replace sugar in lands that now lie fallow, which the governor recently signed into law. It establishes a five-year program where farmers can grow hemp under the umbrella of the State Department of Agriculture.”

“Progress with industrial hemp has taken nearly 20 years,” she says, “but now entrepreneurs will have a locally grown crop to develop into some of the 25,000 known uses and products (none of which will get you high) and sell them under the Hawaii brand.”

Same but Different

Beyond land use and the environment, Senator Thielen has focused on agriculture, women’s rights, affordable housing and small businesses.

“In my first year, we repealed the bad law that motivated me to run,” she says. “In my second year, we prevented similar laws from being passed. In my third year, we rejected a developer appointed to head our Department of Land and Natural Resources and secured a balanced resource manager to head that department.

“Last year, we passed legislation mandating testing of backlogged sex-assault kits and strengthened laws against sex trafficking. We also put significant resources toward addressing homelessness and building affordable rental housing.”

And, just like her mother, the senator is helping to lead the Women’s Caucus.

Keeping Their Own Identities

Maryland Senator Bryan Simonaire and Delegate Meagan Simonaire are the first father-daughter combo to serve concurrently in the Maryland General Assembly. Their supportive family ties have provided a means for collaboration that has helped the younger Simonaire learn the ins and out of legislative life quickly.

Sharing the same name has also challenged them to create separate identities in the eyes and minds of their constituents and their peers in the legislature. The Simonaires were concerned not only that each would be confused for the other, but that the delegate might be dismissed as just “the senator’s daughter.”

 “In the campaign, there were those who attributed Meagan’s campaign success simply to having the name recognition,” says her father. “Therefore, we both knew she would have to establish her own identity and demonstrate her abilities and commitment to the people.”

The delegate says she was conscious of the challenges and the need during her campaign to “work even harder to demonstrate that I would continue that same drive in the legislature. Some people questioned whether I should even be a delegate, because I was (in their minds) elected simply due to being the daughter of the senator.”

The senator admits their concerns were overblown, however. “Actually, creating our own identities was easier than we initially thought it would be,” he says. “With one of us serving in the House of Delegates and the other in the Senate, it created a natural separation.”

Getting to Know You

Although both are Republicans with similar political philosophies, their desire to serve in the legislature is driven by different passions, which can be seen in “our varied and successful legislative initiatives,” Delegate Simonaire says.

“Some people expected me to be exactly like my father, but over time they realized that as much as we have in common, we also have our own priorities,” she says.

One issue the delegate feels passionately about is human trafficking. “While working full time, I was involved in developing human trafficking awareness initiatives, conferences and volunteer opportunities,” she says. “I wanted to do more to make a difference in Maryland, especially since it is a major issue in our state. I wanted to have an effect on legislation dealing with human trafficking. It was one of the main reasons I decided to run for office.”

The senator says that having a family member in the legislature can offer the advantage of more in-depth and long-term discussions on policy. “We have talked about issues and strategies around the family dinner table for years, so those types of detailed conversations continue while in office.”

The Simonaires say they especially appreciate the support and advice that is ready at hand when serving with a family member. “The assistance often needed from the opposite chamber is simply a phone call away,” the senator says.

His daughter agrees. “We can be more efficient and effective with our time by working together on certain issues,” she says. But, she adds, it can be difficult to find the time to get together once the session starts.

“I quickly realized the session was very fast-paced, with less interaction between the House of Delegates and the Senate than I initially thought. I would find myself asking my aide to schedule a meeting with my father when I needed to work with him on certain legislation.”

Another unforeseen consequence of having a father serving in the legislature? Not having him at your swearing-in ceremony. “Many delegates had their significant other or their parents on the floor with them, but my dad couldn’t be there because he was getting sworn in across the hall,” she says.

In 2007, the elder Simonaire became the first Republican elected to the Senate from his district. He was a computer systems engineer before that.

His daughter was elected to her seat in 2014. Before serving in the House, she was a cosmetologist and credits her dad for supporting her no matter what she chose to do. “The best part about my journey is that even though some people think I just did what my dad did, I know he has always been proud of me for following my dreams. To my dad, it’s not about the job title, but about the passion in which you pursue it.”

Related Consequences

Despite some challenges, these lawmakers who serve with family members have found a way to make it work. They have taken advantage of opportunities to collaborate, cooperate and come to consensus—actions that can be surprisingly effective, even if they're a little rare these days.

“After all,” says Delegate Simonaire, “at the end of the day, family or not, people will judge you based on your performance, not on your last name.”

Megan McClure is the senior staff assistant for NCSL’s Center for Legislative Research.

Family Ties Around the Country
Arkansas Representative Kim Hendren and Senator Jim Hendren     Father/Son
Arkansas  Representative Stephen Meeks and Representative David Meeks      Siblings
Colorado Senator Tim Neville and Representative Patrick Neville      Father/Son
Delaware Representative John Viola and Representative Andria Bennett     Father/Daughter
Hawaii Representative Cynthia Thielen and Senator Laura Thielen    Mother/Daughter
Idaho Representative John Vander Woude and Senator Lori Den Hartog     Father/Daughter
Kansas Representative Linda Gallagher and Representative Don Hineman Siblings
Kansas Representative Ronald Ryckman Sr. and Representative Ronald Ryckman Jr.     Father/Son
Maine Senator Peter Edgecomb and Representative Anthony Edgecomb Grandfather/Grandson
Maryland Senator Bryan Simonaire and Delegate Meagan Simonaire      Father/Daughter
Maryland Senator Ron Young and Delegate Karen Lewis Young     Husband/Wife
Minnesota Representative Brian Daniels and Representative Marion O’Neill       Siblings
Minnesota Senator Dan D. Hall and Representative Chad Anderson            Father/Son-In-Law
New Jersey Senator Anthony Bucco and Assemblymember Anthony Bucco Jr.   Father/Son
New York Senator Martin Dilan and Assemblymember Erik Dilan     Father/Son
North Dakota Representative Kim Koppelman and Representative Ben Koppelman     Father/Son
Ohio Senator Gayle Manning and Representative Nathan Manning    Mother/Son
Oklahoma Representative Ann Coody and Representative Jeff Coody   Mother/Son
Oregon Senator Doug Whitsett and Representative Gail Whitsett  Husband/Wife
South Dakota Representative Don Haggar and Senator Jenna Haggar           Father/Daughter
South Dakota Senator Brock Greenfield and Representative Lana Greenfield  Mother/Son
South Dakota Senator Bernie Hunhoff and Representative Jean Hunhoff   Brother/Sister-in-law
Texas Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. and Representative Eddie Lucio III     Father/Son

Delegate Chris P. Stolle and Senator Siobhan S. Dunnavant                                                 

West Virginia Senator Craig Blair and Delegate Saira Blair  Father/Daughter
West Virginia Delegate Ron Walters and Senator Chris Walters      Father/Daughter
Wyoming Senator Phil Nicholas and Representative Bob Nicholas             Brothers

Note: The list reflects pre-election family connections.

Source: NCSL, 2016


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