Open letter to new legislators
Welcome, you 37 new state representatives and two new senators, who’ve never been through a legislative session. You’re in for 140 of the most exciting and exhausting days of your lives.
Several of you got help from the Tea Party – whatever that is in your district. They seem to know what they’re against, but less so what they’re for. Your job is to help figure that out, while still using your own judgment.
Don’t be afraid to chart your own path. Don’t be so beholden to a political party that you walk in lockstep.
But look for kindred spirits who know the ropes. So much comes before the Legislature that you can’t possibly know every nuance of every bill.
A freshman lawmaker says, “I’m going to read every bill that comes before the Legislature.”
His second session: “I’m going to read every bill that comes before my committee.”
His third session: “I’m going to read every bill that has my name on it.”
So find colleagues you respect, who know more than you on particular subjects, and pay attention to their coaching and guidance. That buddy system can help you avoid drowning.
The first few weeks may seem boring. But that’s when you get your office and staff organized, learn where the bathrooms are, and spend time getting to know other House members and their staffs.
You’ll find you’re more popular with lobbyists than you might have imagined. Some already donated to your next campaign, or helped retire your debt.
They may help you realize you’re brilliant, and the folks in the capitol don’t know how they survived before you arrived.
That’s because your vote counts just as much as someone who’s been in the Legislature for 30 years. And that’s what the lobbyists are after – or, at least to educate you enough that you don’t robotically vote against their interests.
That said, the good lobbyists are honest and candid. They represent clients with points of view, but can also provide a wealth of valuable information.
You’ll learn that the Medicaid system that provides help to people doesn’t spend a lot on druggies and deadbeats.
Most goes to old folks, many in nursing homes. Most of the rest goes to children. Your vote to trim Medicaid may throw a supporter’s granny out of the nursing home.
Your learning curve will be steep – if you’re seriously trying to learn. Veterans can tell you they also thought they had lots of answers, but had no idea there were so many questions.
Bill Ratliff is a highly respected former lieutenant governor and senator. His colleagues called him “Obi Wan Kenobi” after the wise old man in the Star Wars movies. Ratliff said he learned things were far more complex than he’d imagined.
“Almost everybody elected to the Legislature comes here with some preconceived, pretty blackand white opinions. (T)he longer that you’re here, the more that you understand – you’re almost forced, in some cases, to listen to the other side.
“And if you have any kind of openness about you, you begin to understand, ‘Maybe I may never agree with them on the solutions, but at least I begin to understand their perception of the problem – that I never saw before.’
“I didn’t grow up in any kind of wealth. We were very much a middle-class, West Texas family. But I frankly had very little concept of walking in the shoes of an urban, minority, low-income constituent.
“And I might never have seen that had I not, in some cases sort of by accident, had to be in the committee meeting and hear some of this.
“So you get exposed to all these other viewpoints, if you truly listen to all sides. And then you begin to understand that hardly any question here is black and white. They’re all some shade of grey.
“And that’s why it’s so important that you’re at least open to this compromise. I think some people consider compromise a bad word, because it implies that you’re somehow not advocating strongly enough for your position. But it’s reaching some kind of an accommodation that addresses the greater good for the greatest number.”
While some try to ramp partisanship up to a Washington level, well-respected former House Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat, said to put district above party.
When meeting with new legislators, Laney said, “I tell ’em two things:
“One, your first obligation is to represent your constituency to the best of your ability.
“ And, you’re now part of what you ran against.”
Longtime Texas political columnist Dave McNeely, who retired from the Austin American-Statesman in 2004, writes a weekly column on Texas politics for three dozen Texas newspapers. With longtime Dallas journalist and author Jim Henderson, McNeely is the author of “Bob Bullock: God Bless Texas.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (512) 458-2963.