More tips for new lawmakers.

By: - January 10, 2005 2:38 pm

The new members of the General Assembly came to Raleigh last week for orientation sessions about everything from expense allowances to hiring a staff member to how to introduce a bill. They also heard from legislative leaders, including House Speaker Jim Black.

Mark Schreiner of Wilmington Star-News reports that Black told the freshmen legislators about his rules for newcomers, to earn the trust of their colleagues, don’t make commitments they couldn’t keep, don’t sign on as a co-sponsor to every bill even if they are asked, and be careful about what said, and then do what they have promised.

All good advice from a longtime legislator, well versed on the way the General Assembly operates. But Black left a few things out, so as a public service, the Fitzsimon File offers a few new items to add to their list.

One—You represent all the people in your district, the ones who voted for you, the ones who didn’t, and the ones who didn’t vote at all. It is pretty easy to hear from folks in your district with money. They will come to you, as most of them have lobbyists, or belong to organizations that do. More then 700 interests had registered lobbyists at the General Assembly. You will get their information by simply being in your office. It is a passive way to get information from a particular point of view.

But to represent everyone in your district, you will have to aggressively seek out information too. The most important bill voted on every year is the budget. Before you vote on it, even before you begin to debate it, be aggressive in seeking information about the people behind the lines of numbers.

Visit your local Department of Social Services, talk to the caseworkers as well as the director. Most importantly, ask to meet the clients. Talk to someone who is trying to find mental health treatment or check with a family with a disabled person on the waiting list for services. Talk to a single mother who wants to work but can’t afford day care.

Call your local HIV/AIDS agency and ask how they are doing and then talk to someone with AIDS. You get the idea. The people stuck on waiting lists or in line at DSS or the health clinic, you represent them too. And they can’t come see you or hire lobbyists to sit outside your office.

Two—Don’t fall in love with the system, or the art of compromise. Politics is often described as the art of compromise and that’s true. But don’t compromise before you start, don’t try so hard to belong that you lose a sense of what made you run.

Thoughtfully challenge the leadership of your chamber or your party when you think they are wrong, when you think a meeting ought to be open or an amendment ought to be considered. Don’t worry that you will be marginalized if you insist on reading the budget before you vote on it. If enough people insist on it, then you will be in the mainstream, not in the margin.

Three—The cliché that is true is that there is no free lunch. Those meals at Sullivan’s or mid court tickets to the Duke/UNC game—you are not getting those from a lobbyist because you are a nice person. The tickets come with strings you may not even see. The best way to avoid feeling obligated is to refuse the gift.

Speaking of folks with money, when you get back to your office and see 50 phone messages, don’t always call back the person first whose name you recognize from your campaign donor list. If that becomes a problem, join the effort to get big money out of the process. Join that effort regardless.

Four—Don’t sign any pledges. Why would you want to make up your mind about anything before you fully understand it? Don’t make decision based on a slogan. No new taxes is not a policy platform. The state faces complicated problems. You wanted the job of solving them. Nobody made you run.

Five—don’t park in the Speaker’s parking place.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066