Advice to New Legislators: Put Constituents First
It’s a tremendous honor to be elected by thousands of voters and entrusted to represent them in every aspect of state government.
After being elected in 1996, I remember walking into the state Capitol and feeling a rush of emotions—pride, excitement, duty, honor, responsibility and a little bit of apprehension. There was so much to learn—the issues, the process, the people involved—and so much at stake knowing our actions would affect so many Floridians.
Term limits had passed but had not kicked in, so we had little turnover. There were only 15 first-time legislators out of 120 members of the Florida House. We had many experienced members to help us newbies. Each was assigned a mentor. There was an urgency to get us up and running since term limits were going to force a large number of legislators out at the next election.
Now fast-forward 20 years. After this year’s election, 41 percent of those elected will be first-timers. The Legislature will experience its largest freshman class with 66 new members out of 160 legislators—20 of the 40 senators and 46 out of the 120 House members.
There’s a lot to absorb in a short amount of time. Here’s my advice from lessons learned in the trenches during my six years in the Florida House and 10 years in the Florida Senate:
Learn the Process: Ask a lot of questions. Find mentors with whom you feel comfortable and ask them to walk you through the legislative process. You need to know what happens at each stage and how to effectively work your bills and amendments.
Know the Rules: This is key, particularly if you are in the minority party. The most effective legislators are the ones who know the rules and aren’t afraid to use them. Issues have been won or lost by successful rules challenges. Be one of the few legislators who take the time to become a rules expert. Others will seek your assistance and it will serve you well in getting your bills passed.
Be Prepared: Read the bills. Read the amendments. Read the staff analysis. Understand what you are voting on. If you’re presenting a bill, anticipate the questions and be prepared to defend your position.
Make Friends and Allies: Relationships are extremely important in getting things done. Develop friendships across party lines, from different regions of the state and with members of the other chamber. You must earn trust and to find others whom you trust to partner with.
Treat Colleagues With Respect: Your foe on one issue might be your ally on another. Be respectful when you disagree by focusing on the merits of the issue and not on personal name calling or questioning of motives. Freely share credit for legislative successes. Always use titles when addressing other legislators in public.
Get to Know the Staff: Take time to get to know the professional staff and seek their help and advice. These are the folks who know how to get things done.
Seek Out All Sides of an Issue: Lobbyists provide good information but usually only one side. Ask what those on the other side of the issue would say. Keep an open mind. Don’t commit to vote a particular way until you feel you know all sides.
Become an Expert: Pick the issues on which you want to focus. It should be where you have great passion or where you’re knowledgeable. Ask to serve on the committees that hear those issues and work up to chairing that committee. Become the “go to” person in that area and leave your mark.
Don’t Get Trapped Inside the Bubble: It’s easy to get caught up in the Tallahassee bubble and to focus too much on the players and the power game. Don’t obsess on the leadership races, raising obscene amounts of money from special interests and seeking to get recognition or credit. That’s the inside game and not why you’re there. Don’t do or say anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of your local paper.
Talk to the News Media: Return reporters’ calls. Tell them about your bills. Keep them in the loop and help them educate voters on issues you’re working on.
Always Put Your Constituents First: The voters in your district sent you to the Capitol to be their voice. Every action you take should put them first—above party, above lobbyists, above campaign contributors and above personal or business interests. Work for what’s best for the people of your district, seek out their opinion, respond to their requests and inquiries and report back to them.
They decide if you get to keep your job.