Advice for New Lawmakers: Seasoned Legislators Offer Some Words of Wisdom for the Freshman Class

By Kerns, Peggy | State Legislatures, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Advice for New Lawmakers: Seasoned Legislators Offer Some Words of Wisdom for the Freshman Class


Kerns, Peggy, State Legislatures


When you walked through the state capitol doors for the first time as a "servant of the citizenry," your emotions most likely ran high, with varying degrees of trepidation, excitement, confidence and anxiety all mixed together. "I was awestruck, humbled and honored," says Wyoming Representative Rosie Berger (R) about her first official day at the Capitol in 2003. "Then I felt energized. I was ready to roll up my sleeves and dig into the people's work."

Last November, Americans elected some 1,600 brand new legislators. Though many have served at local levels, a significant number are first-time elected officials. New or experienced, lawmakers are arriving at state capitols to take the oath of office in historic buildings where many have served before them.

At new-member orientations, you may have learned the ropes, ranging from where to park to the particulars of complex policy issues. You met colleagues and started building the relationships that are so crucial to being an effective legislator. Learning the legislative landscape can be tough, however. It involves an entirely new world of different rules, different people and a somewhat different language. Remembering their roots, several seasoned legislators offer the following "what I know now that I wish I'd known then" advice.

1 Hold on to your values

Don't lose sight of who you are. A good legislator is an ethical legislator who comes into office and leaves office with personal values intact. Follow your moral compass. Be honest and maintain your integrity. The legislature operates on truth and trust. Keep your word, it's your biggest asset. Honor your commitments.

Many new legislators instantly feel more important than they ever thought they were. While fellow lawmakers may treat you as equals, attention from lobbyists and constituents may go to your head. Don't let it. Remember, this exaltation is temporary and will disappear when you leave office. And keep your ambition in check. Focus on doing your job well, not your next political step.

2 Play by the rules.

Obeying the laws should be a given, yet most major ethics scandals happen because this advice is ignored. Still, being ethical is more than just obeying laws. When facing gray areas, often involving conflicts of interest, ask: Does this cross the ethical line? Find a mentor and seek his or her opinion.

Study your state's constitution, the foundation of all your laws. Master your chamber's parliamentary procedures and rules. Get a parliamentary manual, such as Mason's Manual. Those who know the rules have a strategic advantage over others. House clerks, senate secretaries and seasoned legislators are excellent resources. Use them.

Follow the traditions and decorum of your chamber and the legislature. Keep debates civil. Don't personalize disagreements. Respect other points of view. Be open to new information. Reach across the aisle. Despite the current wave of partisanship, most policy issues are not partisan. Cavort with the enemy! Remember, you no longer are campaigning, you are now governing.

3 Serve your constituents.

Despite feeling "overwhelmed" during her first session in 2005, Colorado Senator Nancy Todd (D) distinctly remembers being "very aware of my obligation to serve the people."

Learn early on what you can and cannot do to solve constituents' problems. Ask them to send emails describing their concerns specifically to help you know where to find solutions. But don't promise more than you can deliver. Know when to draw the line and where to send them for answers to keep from getting caught in the middle of issues between constituents and agencies. And always follow through to make sure they were served.

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Look for opportunities to engage citizens, for example, with invitations to a Day at the Capitol, surveys, newsletters and by attending community meetings. …

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