Legislators are a family, which means there can be dysfunction as well as harmony
Author: - January 7, 2011 - Updated: January 7, 2011
Beginning in January of 1993, every odd year, I have written a column aimed at new legislators in the House and Senate. I know the concept is trite, but true. “Your first impression will be how did I get to be here?” Two weeks later you would be asking me “how did those incumbents get here?” I’ll respond, “The same way you did.”
“Legislators are close,” remarked Rep. Jeanne Adkins. In December 1992, we were returning from Rep. John Irwin’s funeral in Loveland. Rep. Adkins, Rep. Ken Chlouber and I, in her car.
“We are together for four months. We probably see each other more than we see our families in those four months,” she continued. She was right and John’s funeral had drawn a very large number of legislators from all parts of the state to pay their respects.
Legislators were close.
They aren’t presently.
Excessive lobbyist events and providing each legislator with an office, is partly to blame. But legislators now provide the ugliness.
The only true comparison for me was my Army Engineer barracks during basic training at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. Closeness doesn’t mean friendship although such lasting friendships do occur. Closeness means being unable to hide a true personality. For better or worse, halfway through a legislator’s first year, he or she is pegged at a certain level and it may take years before original perceptions are discarded.
THE FIRST REMARKS
New legislators or even legislators who have returned after a term or two absent, need to carefully prepare for their first debate or extensive remarks at the podium. The worst thing you can do is go to the mike and state “I also support this bill.” You better be able to come down with good reasons “why,” and be reasons not earlier presented by another legislator.
The legislature, more and more, is compared accurately to a small town. Everyone knows everything about someone else’s “business” at work or at play. Lack of closeness does not stop the gossip, which is a source of information (which might be accurate or false) and of jokes. Weaknesses are replayed through jokes. And journalists do warn you as former Denver Post editor Chuck Green did, “If you don’t want to read about it in the paper tomorrow morning, then don’t do it.”
WHERE TO SIT
On the House, and Senate floors new legislators will notice one group idiosyncrasy, which may or not be based on closeness or just precedent. On the floor, and in office space, elected members share with another elected legislator from the same political party. However where legislators sit in committee hearing rooms are based on the decision of the legislator.
During the first meetings of a House committee you find legislators trying out different seats, but soon a certain seat seems to belong to one legislator. If you diagram a seating arrangement in late February you will find it is still accurate in April.
I have often hoped legislative leaders would experiment. Seat members in the House and Senate alphabetically for the first month just to see whether members react favorably to be so seated. In my first legislative session I sat on the Republican side, as the “last” boundary.
If I drew a circle around my desk I was within talking access and touching of eight legislative seats, five Republican and three Democrats. The three Democrats were Dan Grove, John Carroll, and Luis Rinaldo. The five Republicans were George Fentress, Tom Jordan, Ray Black, Bill Gossard, and Palmer Burch.
The result was I was often asked to lunch with Republicans. Rep. Bill Gossard (R) seated in front of me was a major source of general information (but not of votes). Legislative friendships are like other friendships. Someone has to take the first step.
Several decades ago I spent time training new Democratic legislators. I would use “flash cards” with photos of Republican legislators. New Democratic legislators would not leave the room until they knew Republican legislators by sight and name and knew something of their background.
Can legislative friendships affect bills? Of course they do, especially when it is a close call on a non-partisan issue. That is something every astute lobbyist knows when he or she decides whom to ask to carry a bill.
Don’t become a “hero worshipper.” Just because your favorite legislator votes for a bill does not mean you should do the same. Check information available to you about the bill.
KEEP YOUR WORD
Don’t commit early and don’t commit often.
As a legislator you will be confronted by hundreds of bills. One group (lobbyists and legislators) is going to seek your commitment for and co-sponsorship of a bill. Others will ask you to commit against the same bill.
Unless you are an expert on the subject of the bill, there is no way you will understand the subtle nuances that become exposed during committee hearings or the second reading debate. But you made a commitment. You gave your word. Not keeping your word will earn you the distrust of other legislators and lobbyists.
If you commit early to support a bill, chances are you will have to go to a particular lobbyist or legislator and confess to having changed your position. Lobbyists have become used to this happening. Commitments made are broken daily and most seasoned lobbyists know their head counts are soft. So what they do is bother you again and again, just as they would if you had made no commitment.
First lobbyist — “As to supporting the bill, the legislator said I think I can.”
Second lobbyist — “That’s like saying I think I almost get l—d last night.”
You put your name on a bill as co-sponsor? If the bill has been changed considerably in committee and also second reading amendments, it may be a bill you cannot stand. “You want out.”
Sorry, you have to wait until after third reading in your house. Then you go to the front, face your fellow legislators and request your name be removed as co-sponsor. But what everyone else hears you say is, “Hey, I was stupid to put my name on this turkey and now I need to wiggle off.”
It would have been a lot easier to wait until after third reading and then decide whether you want to be added as a co-sponsor.
I had lunch recently with a legislator from my time in office who was punished for keeping a commitment on who to support for House Speaker. That legislator lost a powerful position and, in my opinion, is still angry decades later over being punished for keeping a promise. So think hard before making public your position.
Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House and three years prior as a special assistant attorney general to draft bills for legislators.