Freshman Legislators Face Steep Learning Curve

Dec 9, 2012

For most of us, the 2012 election is fading into memory as thoughts of the holidays take over.  But for those preparing to take office, this week marks a milestone: roughly the midpoint between Election Day and Inauguration Day. 

Credit WKAR File Photo

If you’re one of the 28 new Michigan House members who’ll soon be making decisions on behalf of the roughly 2.5 million of us who live in your districts, you may want to listen to Gary Randall’s sage advice.

“You cannot get out of step with where your district is, or your tenure here is going to be even shorter than the six years that you’re granted by the constitution,” Randall says.

Randall is the clerk of the Michigan House of Representatives.  He’s seen many a lawmaker pass through the Capitol doors over the years…including himself.  Randall was elected to the Michigan House as a Republican in 1978.  He served 18 years. He says being a state lawmaker means becoming an overnight expert on a broad range of complex issues, regardless of whatever expertise you bring to the job.

“And you’re expected to be an expert on education, on the environment, on business, banking and finance,” says Randall.  “Those are all issues that you will be casting a vote on.  And it places a tremendous burden on them.”

That burden is largely a product of term limits, which Michigan enacted in 1992.  House members can only serve six years; senators eight.  Randall says unlike the days when he started out – an era marked by long-term institutional knowledge and a work-your-way up mentality – legislators often find themselves chairing the most influential committees with very little tenure under their belts.

Shortly after they’re elected, new lawmakers take part in an orientation that covers the basics.  Michigan State University also runs a legislative leadership session.  But aside from that, it’s up to each member to prepare as best they can on their own.

Republican Tom Leonard works in the state assistant attorney general’s office.  He’ll represent Michigan’s 93rd district, which includes portions of Clinton and Gratiot counties.  He says since the election, he’s been setting up appointments with key people and doing his homework.

“I’ve got two meetings coming up with two of the superintendents of the larger school districts within my district because I know there’s going to be a lot of education issues coming up,” Leonard says.  “Before this interview, I just sat down and had lunch with a couple of farmers in my district, figuring out what type of agricultural issues they’re going to be facing.”

House members balance their time between handling the needs of their individual constituents and drafting policies that affect residents across the state. Both facets demand good people skills.

On a recent morning, Tom Cochran was out delivering food to needy residents in south Lansing.

Many of the people on his Meals on Wheels route are his future constituents in the 67th district.  But Cochran, a Lansing Democrat who most recently served as the city’s fire chief, avoids politicking.  He says that’s a line he’s chosen not to cross in his capacity as a private citizen volunteer.  But as a soon-to-be public official, Cochran says he intends to canvass his district in person every month.

“My plan is, once a month notify people I’ll be out and then send them cards thanking them that I was in your neighborhood, that kind of thing,” Cochran says.  “And do a survey asking them what their concerns are, what their issues are, so hopefully I can get a better idea of what the constituents want in the 67th district.”

The 2013 freshman House class will enter the political fray next month with hopefulness and perhaps some humility.

“You’ve got to have humility,” says Leonard.  “You’ve got to go into it understanding that I don’t know everything, and that it’s OK to admit I don’t know everything.  Find out who the experts are, sit with them, ask them the questions and learn from them.”

Cochran shares that view.  Even after years of experience in the give and take of leadership and negotiation, he still marvels at our system of democracy.

“I just felt like I’m Pollyannish enough to believe that you can make a difference,” he muses.  “Talk to me in six years and see if I feel that same way!”

The 28 new members of Michigan’s 97th Legislature formally assume their new offices at noon on New Year’s Day.

For most of us, the 2012 election is fading into memory as thoughts of the holidays take over.  But for those preparing to take office, this week marks a milestone: roughly the midpoint between Election Day and Inauguration Day.

Next month, the Michigan House will receive 28 new members.  For a freshman legislator, the post-election honeymoon is short.  In the era of term limits, incoming lawmakers face a much steeper learning curve than their predecessors did just 20 years ago.