By Wendy Underhill
Stay involved with your community. Lean on your staff. Everyone in the building is a potential ally at some time. Partner up.
That’s some of the advice imparted by legislative “sophomores” to incoming “freshmen” during a New Member Orientation this week in Wisconsin.
Why are “sophomores” chosen to advise the newbies instead of leadership? My best guess is these relatively new legislators were chosen because they remember what it was like just 24 months ago to know almost no one and know almost nothing about how the legislature works.
As NCSL’s liaison to the Badger State, I was able to hear the advice. I didn’t go with the intention of capturing it all, but quickly realized that the advice I was hearing would work in almost any state. Hence, this “listener’s digest” of advice to new members:
Representative Deb Kolste: A new legislator’s most important job is constituent work. That job comes before trying to become a subject-area expert. And, it’s important to “stay involved in your communities.” That’s where your support comes from, and that’s who you serve.
Representative Joe Sanfelippo: “Lean on the staff” because they know the ropes. He’s also spoke to the value of “plain vanilla” research, the kind that Wisconsin’s central staff provides: nonpartisan and fact-based. And all requests are handled confidentially, too. (Providing this flavor of research is one of NCSL’s core services, too.)
Senator Nikiya Harris Dodd: It is essential to “work with everyone in the building” because “you have no permanent friends, and you have no permanent enemies.”
Representative John Jagler: “Partner up” to get legislation to move, especially if you are in the minority. In Wisconsin this year, 94 percent of bills passed with some amount of bipartisan support. And, when you get support early in the process from across the aisle, the chances of success go way up.
Not enough? Ask experts (that is, experienced legislators) in your state. Or, check out NCSL’s resources for members at www.ncsl.org/members. That’s the best kind, and it’s available from the nonpartisan central staff.
And don’t forget to sign up for NCSL’s New Member Webinar series, beginning Dec. 15 with “From the Campaign to the Capitol.”
Wendy Underhill is NCSL’s liaison to Wisconsin.