Veteran Lawmakers Tell Us What They Wish Someone Had Told Them When They Were New to the Job.
By Gene Rose
If you could write a letter to your younger self before you started your career, what would you say?
That’s the question we put to two current and two former state legislators. We asked them what they wish they’d known when they walked into their legislative chamber for the first time. And, considering that more than 20 percent of the nation’s 7,383 state lawmakers are new to the job, we wondered what advice the veterans might have for those who are just getting started.
Our panel includes: Illinois Senator and current NCSL President Toi Hutchinson (D); Utah Senator and former NCSL President Curt Bramble (R); former Indiana Senate Pro Tem David Long (R); and former New Hampshire House Speaker and NCSL President Terie Norelli (D).
NCSL: What surprised you when you first joined your legislature?
Hutchinson: The most surprising thing was how much time you have to dedicate to this and how little the public sees of it. There’s a big disconnect between what people think legislators do and what legislators actually do. I was probably more surprised by all of the stuff that’s not sexy, the things that don’t make the papers, the meetings you go to that nobody knows of.
Bramble: I thought that I needed to come out of the starting gates being very aggressive and establish some boundaries, not recognizing the process. You can be overbearing; you can be overly aggressive; you can be perceived as a bulldog or a bully or whatever. I thought politics was all rough-and-tumble, and so I came out swinging, basically.
And what I very quickly learned is building consensus is not steamrolling. It’s not based on political muscle. But it’s based on the power of ideas. And when you learn that it’s the power of ideas and you need to build consensus, it takes a constitutional majority, and you can’t do it alone.
Long: It’s a similar experience for everyone, which is the sheer volume of information and issues with which you’re confronted. I was a city councilman for eight years before I became a state senator, so I was used to working on local government issues. But you’re confronted with so much more as a legislator, just the fiscal issues alone, dealing with a budget and trying to understand all the permutations there: education, corrections, transportation, environment and so forth.
The key is to work hard and learn your trade and it will come to you; it will become more familiar in time. But it’s a whole lot out of that fire hose at first and everyone goes through that.
THERE’S A VERY BIG DISCONNECT BETWEEN WHAT PEOPLE THINK LEGISLATORS DO AND WHAT LEGISLATORS ACTUALLY DO.”
—Senator Toi Hutchinson, Illinois
Did you ever struggle with your committee assignments?
Bramble: Committee assignments generally are handed down by the powers on high and no matter what committee assignment you’re given, pursue it with a passion and learn all you can. To quote a commercial, “Be the best you can be.” Take whatever you’re given and magnify it. In doing that, you’ll also do your own agenda wonders.
Norelli: When I was a freshman, I was put on a committee about which I knew zero. It was science, technology and energy, and they told me they put me there because I used to be a math teacher.
I did a lot of learning, building relationships on the committee, both with members of my party and across the aisle, figuring out who were the people that had various expertise, and built a reputation as someone who really knew committee work and understood it.
Speaking on the chamber floor—is that an acquired skill?
Norelli: Boy, I really do wish I had known about that when I was a freshman, because I was talked into speaking on the House floor about an issue that before [working in] the legislature I was very versed in. But it was kind of at the last minute and I was not as prepared as I could have been.
I would have a conversation with other people who are speaking on the same side that you are to make sure that you’re not duplicating what other people are saying. Probably the biggest mistake people make on the House floor in my opinion is that they overstay their welcome.
Bramble: Whether you’re a freshman or a seasoned legislator, you’ll find in every chamber there are one or two or a handful of legislators that tend to dominate the speaking time. Generally, if you’re one of those, you get tuned out. So, speak when you have something important to add.
“I THOUGHT POLITICS WAS ALL ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE, AND SO I CAME OUT SWINGING.”
—Senator Curt Bramble, Utah
How did you go about building relationships with new, and more experienced, colleagues?
Long: Relationships are so important, not just with your caucus, but also across the aisle and with the other chamber. I can’t emphasize that enough. They are going to be critical to you passing legislation.
I made some long-standing, 20-year friendships, good ones, with some Democrats who didn’t need to do that to a freshman Republican senator. But they took the time out of kindness to help me understand how I could be successful over in the House with them. That meant a lot.
Bramble: You can’t suspend the rules in the House and pass your bill if you’re a senator. You still have to navigate the bill in the other chamber before it goes to the governor.
You have to build a relationship with the administration, so that when your bills do arrive on the governor’s desk, they’re going to see them as credible and well-reasoned because they understand who you are and where they come from.
Hutchinson: There are no permanent friends. There are no permanent enemies. There are only permanent interests. People that you’re opposed to now might be your best friends on another piece of legislation down the road. So do not ever burn bridges. This is a game of addition, not subtraction.
Long: I made the mistake of talking to our finance chairman about an income tax law and telling him how dumb aspects of it were. I asked him who wrote the law and he said, “I did.” It took me a while to overcome that. He was not pleased with the whippersnapper coming in there and telling him how to do things.
Did you seek out mentors when you first entered the legislature?
Norelli: I had so many. My caucus leader was a mentor. Both the Republican and the Democrat who were leaders on the committee were mentors in different ways.
Long: When I became the leader 12 years ago, we changed the system to make sure that new legislators had a mentor assigned to them. 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.
Norelli: What makes me the happiest is when somebody tells me they considered me a mentor and I didn’t even know it. So I don’t think it has to be a formal relationship. It’s just looking for someone who is willing to talk things over with you, give you advice and share their thoughts.
"RELATIONSHIPS ARE SO IMPORTANT, NOT JUST WITH YOUR CAUCUS, BUT ALSO ACROSS THE AISLE AND WITH THE OTHER CHAMBER.”
—Former Senator David Long, Indiana
What’s the best way to handle constituent requests?
Hutchinson: When someone calls my office for help, the response isn’t, “Did you vote for me? Are you a Democrat or are you a Republican?” It’s just, “You live in my district and you need help.” I’m supposed to help. Something has to be different or better because I was there, even if it’s just for that one person.
Long: You can’t ignore your constituents. If you do it’s to your peril because they’ll remember.
In this world of instant communication, it is a real challenge to stay in touch. But you need to respond. As much as it’s an irritant sometimes when you feel swamped and overwhelmed, you have to stay in touch with the people who brought you to the dance.
Hutchinson: There are the few times when someone calls really angry and you realize in 30 seconds that they really just want to be heard. They wanted to say what they needed to say and they wanted to know that somebody was listening to them.
I do what my mother and my grandparents taught me to do, which is meet every person where they’re at. And if I expect them to listen to me, I have to offer the same thing. And that’s hard in this environment right now because we kind of reflexively fall back in our corners and get defensive about the things that we believe in.
Bramble: The soundest advice I can give is to recognize that sometimes you have to say no to constituents. You don’t want to say no, but you’d better learn how to do it if you have to. The United States is a constitutional republic, a representative democracy. We’re not peer democracy. And sometimes what constituents demand, you simply cannot in good conscience champion.
Interacting with lobbyists comes with the territory. What advice do you have?
Bramble: There are contract lobbyists, industry lobbyists, company lobbyists, citizen lobbyists, activist lobbyists, and homemakers who come and lobby. That term is applied to anyone that advocates for government.
If a person is a paid lobbyist, recognize that they’re paid for their opinion. Even my closest friends who have become lobbyists recognize that I may not agree with a particular position that their clients want and, to the extent that they’re paid to have an opinion, separate friendship from policymaking.
Long: Lobbyists have a job to do and they represent their constituents and their clients. They don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart. They may seem like your best friend, but the reality is they’ve got a job to do, to represent their clients to the best of their ability. As long as you keep that perspective, they can be a wealth of information.
But if you tell somebody you’re going to vote a certain way and then you vote differently, that will catch up with you—not only with your fellow legislators, but also with the people out in the hallway. If you have changed your mind, tell people that and tell them why. Just be straight with them.
“WHAT MAKES ME THE HAPPIEST IS WHEN SOMEBODY TELLS ME THEY CONSIDERED ME A MENTOR AND I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW IT.”
—Former House Speaker Terie Norelli, New Hampshire
Understanding how the media operate seems like another important skill to master.
Long: Being honest and straightforward with them is important. If you don’t want to talk to them, don’t talk to them. That’s also OK. Just understand that they’ve got a job to do.
Bramble: When the media asks a direct question, I prefer giving them a direct answer. If you’re always straight up with them and you’re genuine with them, at some point they will treat you as the genuine person that you are.
Long: The modern legislator will not be facing as much media scrutiny as in the past because the media has changed and there’s not as much coverage of statehouses as there used to be.
But in its place are the podcast, Twitter account and social media. So you have a little more control over the message. It’s important to use those tools. You’ll have a communications department that should be helping you with that. Take advantage of it. Embrace it. There are a lot of people there to help you do your job. Use them.
That brings up the importance of state legislative staff.
Long: The people that take care of you in the legislature are critical to your success. I will tell anyone who is new at this: Take care of those who take care of you. Be good to your staff. Be good to your legislative assistant, your communications people, the policy people and the people who help you look good and do your job well.
Make sure that you build a good relationship and that you’re fair with your staff and reasonable. Have reasonable expectations of what your staff should or shouldn’t be doing.
Hutchinson: We don’t give enough credit to the people that make legislatures run and provide us the policy expertise and the research and the stuff to back up what it is we’re saying.
How did you learn to take care of yourself in what can be a very demanding job?
Hutchinson: When I first came in, I said yes to everything. You don’t have to go to every single reception. You don’t have to drink wine at every single reception. You feel a pressure to do that when you first come in, and that affects your sleep and that affects your stamina.
So, the No. 1 thing is to love yourself enough to know that you cannot take care of anybody else if you are not taking care of yourself.
Long: Part of the job is learning how to balance your home life and your personal life with the reality of politics.
You feel like you’re torn in a lot of different directions. You get very, very busy. It’s an important job. And so is family life and keeping that focus as the center of your life is very important. I’ve got great kids, but I missed a few games and I wish I hadn’t.
That’s very important for new legislators to keep in perspective. Don’t lose sight of your friends at home.
Keep those relationships close because this job can swallow you up and will if you’re not careful.
Norelli: I started doing yoga and personally I found that I really learned how to breathe. I learned how to start a day at a slow and conscious pace, which helped me during the day and reminded me sometimes when things get hectic, just take a deep breath. It gives you an opportunity to clear your head and be ready for the next thing as well.
It sounds like keeping your eye on the big picture could lead to tremendous job satisfaction.
Long: The laws passed in the legislature affect everybody every day in your state in very personal ways. If you can make a difference, leave the place a better place than you found it, and your constituents and your district better than you found them, you’ve done your job.
Bramble: If they approach this with sincerity, it can be one of the greatest and most humbling experiences of their life. The opportunity to represent your neighbors, your friends, your community, is an incredible honor. But recognize that it is the office that deserves the respect, the institution that deserves the respect, and you’re just a transient traveler passing through, whether it’s for one term or 10 terms.
Norelli: I think the most important thing is remembering why you’re there. I think sometimes in the heat of things, it truly can feel like a game, a sport. That can be dangerous for people.
Keep asking, “Why am I here? Why am I doing this?” It’s because I believe in certain issues. It’s because I have constituents who need me to be there for them. Remind yourself what’s important and then your game will be at its top, because that’s what will be inspiring you.
Gene Rose is president of At Last Communications and produces NCSL’s podcast, “Our American States.”