Toolbox | 5 Tips for Every New Lawmaker

1/14/2019

STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2019

Getting elected was hard work, but now the really hard part begins—representing your district.

If you are one of the 1,500 brand-new lawmakers elected last fall, are you prepared?

We compiled the following advice from several seasoned legislators.

1. Hold On to Your Values

Don’t lose sight of who you are. Follow your moral compass. The legislature operates on truth and trust. Keep your word. And keep your ambition in check. Fellow lawmakers may treat you as an equal, but attention from the media, lobbyists and constituents can go to your head. Don’t let it. It’s easy to start feeling more important than you really are.

2. Play by the Rules

Obeying the law should be a given, yet most ethics scandals occur because this advice was ignored. When in doubt about an ethical gray area, find a mentor and seek his or her opinion. Know your state’s constitution and master your chamber’s rules. Clerks, secre­taries and seasoned legislators are excellent resources. Use them. Do your homework and you’ll build your credibility. Cavort with the enemy! Remem­ber, you no longer are campaigning, you are now governing.

3. Serve Your Constituents

You are there to serve, but don’t promise more than you can deliver. Know where to draw the line with constit­uents and where to send them for answers. Always follow through to make sure they were served. Invite people to the capitol, do surveys, write newsletters and attend community meetings. Send out email blasts before big votes. Schedule town meetings and pop into local cafes. You were elected by a majority of voters, but you repre­sent everyone in your district.

4. Get Smart

Specialize in a policy area or look to fill a void, then team up with experts. Give clear instructions to bill drafters. Focus on your committee work as this is where the in-depth work on bills is done. Remember, state budgeting is driven by service, not profit. Be honest and forthcom­ing with the media and lobbyists and avoid grandstanding. The press may want a good story, but you don’t have to be the one to give it to them.

5. Avoid (the Many) Freshman Traps

Be aware of first im­pressions. Too many freshmen introduce bills with great ideas of how to spend mon­ey, but with no idea of where the money will come from. Don’t commit too early to other people’s bills. Keep your eye on long-term policy goals. Draw a line between the needs of your con­stituents and personal relationships with col­leagues and lobbyists. Avoid a quid pro quo mentality.

Parting Thought

This comes from former Wyoming Representative Rosie Berger (R), who would walk the capitol’s vacant halls in the mornings before business started: “Be grateful for your opportunity to serve the public. Find some quiet time to collect your thoughts and gain appreciation for your experience as a legislator,” she says. “In the quiet of the morning, I absorbed the histo­ry of the building. It reinforced why I chose to run and serve.”

These tips, which have been updated, were first compiled by NCSL’s Peggy Kerns and published in February 2013.

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources