legislative leadership in a crisi 2020 ncsl base camp

Legislative leadership in the time of COVID-19 was the focus of a recent discussion at NCSL Base Camp 2020.

NCSL Base Camp 2020 | Legislative Leaders, Our Real American Superheroes

By Amanda Zoch | Sept. 25, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

In a year unlike any other, legislative leaders have been thrust into the spotlight—guiding their chambers through a global pandemic’s myriad challenges.

At the recent NCSL Base Camp 2020, five legislative leaders shared what they learned about leading and legislating beyond crisis. The speakers were:

  • J. Stuart Adams (R), president, Utah Senate
  • Leroy Garcia (D), president, Colorado Senate
  • Elijah Haahr (R), speaker, Missouri House of Representatives
  • Othni Lathram, director, Alabama Legislative Services Agency
  • Megan Martin, secretary, Pennsylvania Senate

Each panelist shared the unique hardships they faced and their often creative responses. As Garcia put it, “there’s not a manual that says this is how it should be done.”

When the pandemic hit, lawmakers sprang into action to preserve the health of their constituents and states, but they also needed to figure out just how they could do the essential work of governing. The traditional workplace needed to change, and that, according to Martin, required “innovative thinking.” Chambers adapted by integrating remote voting, convening new committees and responding to emergency orders all the while grappling with constitutional and statutory requirements that could run counter to present needs.

“We put together a committee on disease essentially for this issue and were doing meetings before we had a single case in Missouri,” noted Haahr. Although it felt like over-preparing, that advance planning paid off.

And though each chamber and state forged different paths through the COVID-19 crisis, our panelists all agreed: Communication and collaboration are key.

Within the (virtual) capitol, “people were really rowing in the same direction,” said Lathram.

Adams added that his initial priority was finding a way “to get the interaction you need from the members.” Moving forward, he aims to extend that collaborative spirit by looking into hybrid options for public input.

Through flexibility and grit, legislative leaders across the country found ways to continue the essential work of our democracy. And for that, they really are superheroes.

Amanda Zoch is an NCSL policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.

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