Thomas Jefferson did it. So did James Madison, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. They worked tirelessly to make representative government work. Now, the well-being of your state legislature is in your hands.
Here are 15 tips to help guide new legislators:
Honor the institution.
Preserve and protect it so it remains a strong, co-equal branch of government. Legislative service is one of democracy’s worthiest pursuits. It is an important duty that deserves our time, attention and dedication. To work well, government requires a bond of trust between citizens and their representatives. Try to appeal to the best instincts of the electorate, talk about what you stand for and what you intend to do during your time in office, then work as hard as you can to fulfill those promises. Remember why you ran for office—to make a difference, a difference for the better.
Take the high road.
Would you be embarrassed to see your actions reported in the newspaper? Make sure you understand your state’s ethics codes and adhere to them. New legislators are rarely prepared for close scrutiny of their behavior, nor do they recognize the effect of their behavior on the institution. Avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Understanding legislative etiquette and ethical responsibilities is vital, not only to the institution and your constituents, but to yourself.
Try to appeal to the best instincts of the electorate, talk about what you stand for and what you intend to do during your time in office, then work as hard as you can to fulfill those promises.
Master the rules.
Carry them around with you to read as you see the process unfold. Get to know experienced parliamentary experts, both legislators and staff, and seek their advice routinely. Don’t ever presume you have conquered the rules.
Know where to get help.
Get acquainted with legislative staff members and key people in the governor’s office and cabinet offices. Ask for advice from members on both sides of the aisle. Lobbyists also can serve as resources, but be sure to ask for information from those on all sides of an issue. Trust legislative staff. Hire the brightest, most dedicated staff you can find. To prepare for committee meetings, set aside 20 minutes or so a few days beforehand to review the bills on the agenda with staff.
Manage your time.
Organize, prioritize, commit to those things you consider important. An effective legislator is punctual: Get to the floor on time, get to your appointments on time, get to your committee meetings on time. It’s the little things that trip you up—like deadlines. If you miss a bill filing, it could be a whole year before you can try again. If you’re late in filing campaign contributions—or don’t file at all—you might read about it in the paper or see it in your next opponent’s campaign brochure.
Develop a specialty.
Focus your policy pursuits so you can do a few tasks very well. Be selective in the bills you introduce. Choose two or three issues you are going to specialize in and make a difference. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Pursue committee assignments in your areas of interest, get appointed to a task force and help negotiate an issue even if you aren’t the major sponsor of a bill. By being the point person on these issues, you will be the person others turn to for help and information. You will develop your negotiating skills and build your reputation as a serious lawmaker among your colleagues and outside the legislature.
Vote your conscience.
Your constituents sent you to the legislature, and you must represent them. But you are also a trustee of your entire state. Sometimes a hot issue presents nearly irreconcilable conflicts among these responsibilities. It may not please everybody, but the voters have placed their trust in you. Commit to communicating with your constituents about how you evaluate issues and arrive at decisions. That allows you not only to represent by listening, but also to represent by leading. It will give you latitude with people who may not always agree with you but who will respect you for thinking through issues.
Don’t burn bridges.
Remember that today’s adversary may be tomorrow’s ally, so learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. Avoid reacting emotionally or in anger on the floor to something someone has said.
Keep your word.
Ben Franklin was right: Honesty is the best policy in life and in the legislature. If you promise someone your vote, deliver. A good working relationship with your fellow legislators and your constituents depends on their ability to believe what you say. Sometimes, after you have promised to vote a certain way, you will get additional information that changes your mind. Tell people you’ve changed your mind and why. Remember, credibility is key around the legislature; you can’t be effective if you are perceived as untrustworthy.
Be careful what you agree to.
The casual co-sponsorship of bills promises minor rewards and major headaches. When in doubt—don’t. Be careful not to let socializing on the floor, friendship and trust come before scrutiny of a bill. You might end up having to vote against a bill you’ve signed on to sponsor. One protection is a 24-hour waiting period. Make sure you understand the bill. Take time to decide.
Don’t hog the mic.
When making a floor speech, prepare in advance and make sure the topic is something that’s important to you. You risk wearing out your welcome if you feel the need to hold forth on every bill. Sometimes, the most effective legislator is the one who speaks only three or four times during the session.
Stay in touch with your constituents.
Communicate with constituents. This is an overwhelming task, but it’s critical. Return phone calls, answer letters, have town meetings. Let them know who you are, that you’re approachable and responsible, that you represent them. It’s difficult to build a bond with your constituents simply through press releases. If you have any writing skills at all and you care about policy, it’s well worth the time to write a weekly column for the news media, start a blog or post your views on a Facebook page. It’s important to think through the issues before you decide on them and to explain to your constituents—either before or after you vote—how you got there.
Be a problem-solver.
When controversial issues arise in your district, use your skills and your office to help the community find solutions. Whether it’s the location for a new prison or closing a school, work with the state agencies and local governments to find the best solution. Avoid taking sides on clearly local issues but serve as a resource for information to help find the best solution. Call on the experience and knowledge of veteran legislators. Ask questions, do research, show you can be a positive influence in the community.
Work with the media.
Be proactive. Contact reporters regularly to tell them about your position on issues and the work you are doing. Focus on the policy process and the issues, not on partisan differences and conflict. Present information that is easy to understand and use. Know your local newspapers’ deadlines. Call writers back promptly. Don’t expect them to use your news releases if you avoid their phone calls. Acknowledge a good article, and don’t hesitate to ask for corrections of distortions in facts or other errors in stories.
Stop and smell the roses.
In politics, it’s a struggle to maintain a normal private life. Politicians can be tempted to take family members for granted. Sometimes it’s difficult to resist self-importance. The responsibilities and, for some, acclaim that come with holding public office can be unhealthy substitutes for reflection, ordinary friendships and meeting the simple responsibilities of life. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Eat right. Exercise. And make time for yourself.