January 22, 2007
Speakers get schooled in statesmanship
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
The eight Democrats and six Republicans hailed from state capitals are far-flung as Carson City, Nev., Salem, Ore., and Concord, N.H., but discovered they faced a number of similar challenges, including an overwhelming array of new duties and members' temperaments.
"It's like herding cats. You're dealing with people who have a high esteem of themselves and large egos, and they're hard-working and very successful-type people," said Montana House Speaker Scott Sales (R), who will preside over the only statehouse chamber where the GOP gained a new majority in 2006.
Away from the partisan sniping and media spotlight of their statehouses, the new leaders took advantage of a respite Jan. 12-14 between elections and legislative business to contemplate what duties to delegate, when to wield political muscle and when to compromise.
Vermont House Speaker Gaye Symington (D), in her second term as leader, urged the newly powerful not to lose touch with less prominent lawmakers. As a new speaker, Symington said she vowed not to use the opulent lavatory reserved for the presiding officer. She said that forced her to walk the halls and see members on her way to the rank-and-file restrooms. "Half of the business of the House takes place in the bathrooms," she quipped.
Warming up to members is a key goal of the nation's youngest speaker, Nebraska Senate Speaker Mike Flood , 31. Flood said he "felt lost" as a new lawmaker in 2005. Now, as leader of the 49-member unicameral Legislature, Flood said he intends to spend a lot of time visiting with colleagues, especially the 22 freshmen who are filling posts vacated because of term limits.
To showcase ways to fight partisan instincts, lawmakers were presented a case study of how the Colorado Legislature helped to roll back a state government spending cap in 2005. Thom Little, a political scientist and SLLF researcher who authored the study, said the episode demonstrated how Colorado lawmakers formed a bipartisan coalition that "did the impossible" - convincing citizens to give up a refund of surplus tax money.
Cooperation between both sides of the aisle was a recurring theme. Wisconsin's new Assembly speaker, Mike Huebsch (R) , said: "We've got to learn to work together. I don't think we can go back to the voters in 18 months and say, 'Look, I couldn't get it done because the other party wouldn't let me.' The voters aren't buying that anymore."
Huebsch leads a Republican majority in the state Assembly that will have to contend with a new Democratic majority in the Senate and Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle, re-elected last year to a second term.
Rhode Island House Speaker William J. Murphy (D), in his third term as speaker, said one of the most important things a new leader has to do is to "set his or her agenda, make sure they have a game plan to put that agenda into place and not to deviate from it."
Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy (D) said one of his biggest challenges will be to lower the expectations of ardent Demcorats to a realistic level, now that the party is in charge of both the executive and legislative branches of government for the first time in 40 years.
"I think the big part is trying to get people to understand that there is a limit to what we can do in a limited period of time," he said.
Personal values also are a big part of leadership, said Maine's new House speaker, Glenn Cummings (D ), a seventh-generation Mainer and economics professor. Cummings said compassion, a strong work ethic and honesty were the three ideals that struck a chord with him and several others.
But for most, the weekend's central lesson was that the demands of leadership transcend geography, legislative experience and party affiliation.
"I think the take-away lesson here for all the new speakers is that we're not alone, that there's 50 states and we have basically similar problems," said House Speaker Melvin Neufeld , a farmer from southwest Kansas who is capping a nearly 20-year career in the Legislature.
One of those challenges is simply the demands of the job, said Iowa's Murphy: "It is a job, my wife even said, that you could do it 24-7." In order to stay married, Murphy said he won't devote quite that much time to leading his chamber.