Leading Lawmakers

This year’s leadership award winners exemplify integrity and bipartisanship.

By Edward Smith
July/August 2008

Leaders come in a lot of different packages.

This year’s recipients of the Excellence in State Legislative Leadership Award—the nation’s top legislative honor—are certainly a demonstration of that.

Richard Codey, president of the New Jersey Senate, is a former governor who has more than survived that state’s often bruising politics, including plenty of clashes with those in his own party.

Steve Sviggum, former speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives and now the commissioner of the Minnesota Department Labor and Industry, spent 29 years in the Legislature, much of it in the minority.

But each—Codey, a Democrat, and Sviggum, a Republican—get praise from both sides of the aisle for their ability to craft bipartisan deals and for their integrity.

The award is presented annually by NCSL and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation to honor leaders whose careers embody the highest principles of leadership and have shown a commitment to protecting and strengthening the institution of the state legislature. Last year’s recipient was Joe Hackney, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives and incoming president of NCSL.

William T. Pound, executive director of NCSL, says the two “demonstrate a deep loyalty to the legislative institution and exemplify the varieties of legislative leadership that we have in this country.”

Foundation President Stephen G. Lakis echoed the sentiment, saying the committee was “pleased to have two highly qualified legislative leaders to confer the award on this year. Both were recognized because of their strengths in working in a bipartisan fashion The committee was impressed with their spirit of cooperation.”

Richard Codey
Codey, 61, is currently New Jersey’s longest serving legislator. He was elected to the Assembly in 1973 at 26, the youngest person at that time ever elected to the Legislature.

His stint as governor came unexpectedly after former Governor Jim McGreevey resigned amid a sex scandal in 2004. New Jersey does not have a lieutenant governor, and the Senate president assumes the governor’s post in the event of resignation or incapacitation.

“Dick Codey has gone through just about every leadership position you can go through, and then for 14 months was Senate president and concurrently acting governor,” says Alan Rosenthal, a professor of public policy and political science at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and a member of the selection committee. “In terms of having to do an assortment of dances, Codey has done them all and done them nimbly.”

Codey demonstrated his wit after he took over as governor. In an April 2005 address at Princeton University, he shared his favorite joke about why he preferred to stay at his home in West Orange instead of moving into the governor’s mansion: “The governor’s mansion, Drumthwacket, is just down the road from here, you know. Where I was born and raised in Orange, we tried to get out of public housing, not into it.”

Codey called it “a tremendous honor to be regarded in the same esteemed tradition as William Bulger,” referring to the former president of the Massachusetts Senate who was the first recipient of the award. “I have always believed government should be a tool of compassion to serve those without a voice.  This is part of the core beliefs instilled in me by my parents, making this award all the more humbling.  I thank the National Conference of State Legislatures and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation for this recognition.”

Codey grew up in a large Irish family and his father was a funeral director. He worked in that profession and then later became president of an insurance brokerage that he recently sold.

His legislative passion has been directed toward improving services for the mentally ill, encouraging stem-cell research, improving school security and raising the state’s minimum wage. He famously exposed lax employee hiring standards at state psychiatric hospitals several years ago by assuming the name of a deceased convicted criminal and then getting hired at a psychiatric hospital. The sting led to strict background checks and improved training standards.

Codey enjoys strong support in mental health community. His stint “as governor constitutes a legacy of unwavering commitment to … society’s most vulnerable citizens—individuals with mental illness,” wrote Robert N. Davison, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Essex County Inc., in a letter supporting his nomination.

Codey was elected to the Senate in 1981, became assistant minority leader in 1992, and minority leader in 1998. When the Senate split 20-20 in 2002, he spent two years as co-Senate president before taking over as Senate president when the Democrats regained control in 2004. He was re-elected  Senate president this year.

In a nominating letter, Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr., a Republican, said that as governor, Codey “handled the dual responsibilities with fairness and integrity, understanding instinctively the need for constancy and stability at the helm during a time of great crisis.”

Rosenthal says that another key to Codey’s leadership has been his efforts, with Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., to propel the Legislature as “a co-equal or even a leading role in the policymaking process.”

“Traditionally the New Jersey Legislature has been a handmaiden of the governor,” Rosenthal says, “but since Governor John Corzine was elected and the Democrats have had majorities in both houses, the Legislature has insisted on doing it its own way.

“Codey has a lot to recommend him as a leader throughout a long career.”

Steve Sviggum
While Cody may have a folksy manner, Sviggum, 56, is a genuine rural guy, a farmer and former high school math teacher and basketball referee who is known to prefer sweaters to suits. He also was known as a skilled legislative tactician and a tireless campaigner. 

“Sviggum was a Republican leader, but he really saw the need for dealing with minority Democrats in the House and Senate,” says Rosenthal. “He was a man of his word and a very decent man who cared about the House and the Legislature.”

Sviggum was first elected in 1978 at 27 and served 29 years in the House. As minority leader, he helped the Republicans take the majority in 1998, and served as speaker of the House from 1999 until 2007. In June of that year, he was nominated by Governor Tim Pawlenty to his post at the Department of Labor and Industry. 

“I’m very, very, very honored and humbled by this distinguished award,” Sviggum says. “It makes you smile both internally and externally, but you wonder about these good things people wrote about you to get this award. They must have pumped me up to be a little better than I am. I guess I’d call it enhanced reality.”

While leading the House, Sviggum needed to work with Senate President Roger Moe, a Democrat, and Governor Jesse Ventura, who won his seat as an independent.

“When you have someone like Ventura in the mix it makes it very difficult,” Rosenthal says. “The Democrats in the Senate were trying to get Ventura in their side, and Republicans in the House were trying to get him on their side. Ventura was so difficult to deal with because he was not into governing. That was a trying period, that sort of tripartite government.”

Moe calls him “extremely deserving of the award. He was a very worthy adversary. Even though I didn’t always agree, you have to take a step back and admire him. Despite all our nose-to-noses and toes-to-toes, I consider him a friend. “

Such praise from a longtime political rival, Sviggum says, demonstrates his commitment to bringing people together. “No one gets everything the way they like it in life. It’s probably true in governing even more so. You have to be able to cooperate with people and bring them together.”

Sviggum also was praised by Pawlenty, who served with him in the House. Sviggum, he says, has had “a lifelong commitment to public service and a fair and balanced approach” in the Legislature.

Sviggum’s legislative agenda included reducing state income and  property taxes, reforming education and holding down state spending.

Even the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which noted it often had disagreed with his conservative stances, had this to say in an editorial when he left the Legislature: Sviggum is a man “of character and decency who tried to avoid the worst sins of partisan politics.”

Richard James “Dick” Codey
Post: New Jersey Senate President
Age: 61
First elected: 1973
Party: Democrat
Family: Wife Mary Jo, two children

Steve Sviggum
Post: Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry since 2007, adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs,  former Minnesota Speaker of the House
Age: 57
First elected: 1978
Party: Republican
Family: Wife Debbie, three children

Edward Smith is the managing editor of State Legislatures.