Advice to New MD Legislators

 By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 13, 2015 — Attention, newcomers to the Maryland General Assembly. Welcome to Annapolis and its historic State House.

You’ve been through an orientation and culture shock is starting to set in. But don’t get too comfortable. Things are about to change in a BIG way.

Wednesday’s ceremonial events, with family and friends, will give way to the realities of the General Assembly. It’s not as easy as it seems.

Here is some pro bono advice for you, offered freely and without charge:

1. Play nice in the sandbox.

You can’t shake things up in Annapolis by picking fights, insisting you’re the only one with the answers and hurling insults.

Maryland’s state legislature is a place where good manners count. It’s been that way since Colonial days. The presiding officers take courteous behavior very seriously.

Make a mess in the sandbox and you’ll likely wind up in a political Siberia.

2. Be practical, not ideological.

Neither far-left Democrats nor far-right Republicans get very far in Annapolis unless they practice pragmatism and leave their philosophical straitjackets at home.

Nearly all the thousands of bills you deal with relate to problems that need fixing in order to help people. It’s a form of non-partisan constituent service. Put an ideological label on bills and you’re almost certain to see them trashed.

3. Be polite, even in opposition.

Rants and angry outbursts bring embarrassment and ostracism. Those with passionate far-left or far-right beliefs will be sorely tempted to lash out when things aren’t going their way.

Resist that temptation. Your colleagues appreciate thoughtful comments, even when they don’t agree.

4. Make friends, not enemies.

It’s a truism that your opponents today could well be the allies you need tomorrow for success on legislation. Learn how to operate within this closed environment, which means “friending” as many colleagues as possible — regardless of party affiliation.

5. Lower your expectations.

You may still be puffed up after winning elective office, but let’s face it: You’re a small fish in big pond — one out of 188 legislators with plenty of great white sharks swimming in your fish tank.

Legislators who promised voters sweeping changes once elected quickly discover this is an empty piece of campaign rhetoric. It means nothing in the State House. Settle for small victories because that’s all you can achieve.

6. Take things one step at a time.

Newcomers don’t realize how difficult it is to get a bill enacted. It takes months of intensive persuasion, brokering and maneuvering just to push your bill through your own chamber. Gaining assent from the other chamber within the 90-day session can be even trickier.

Don’t expect miracles. It may take years, not months, to get consensus on your bills. Patience counts.

7. Keep your ego in check.

Legislating is a team game, and as coaches like to say, “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team.’ Those who play Lone Ranger, seeking to become a one-person legislature, don’t fare well.

Pomposity and self-promotion in Annapolis frequently result in stone-cold silence and isolation.

8. Network, network, network.

It works in business and in legislating. You will need all the help and advice you can get to be successful in Annapolis. Throw out a broad net and gain as many new acquaintances as possible. You never know when you’ll call on them at a crucial moment for assistance.

9. Never stop learning, or listening.

This is going to be an eye-opener. Just mastering the legislative process, Maryland-style, will take time. It is a vast learning experience.

You will be exposed to information about issues you never dreamed about. You will hear an endless array of viewpoints from citizens, much of it conflicting, on matters big and small.

Your job: Be a committed listener.

Hear what witnesses and advocates are saying. Absorb that information and slowly evaluate its importance. Be willing to hear from people on all sides of the argument.

Four years from now you’ll feel like you’ve gained a PhD. in human nature.

10. Try to persuade, not emote.

Logic wins in Annapolis. Verbal pyrotechnics grab headlines but they don’t change the outcome on votes. To do that, you have to make convincing arguments, you have to marshal your facts and data, you have to get those on the other side to engage in a dialogue.

While pontificating may be self-satisfying, it won’t advance your cause. More likely it will prove a setback.

11. Do you best work in committee.

The nitty-gritty on bills occurs at the committee level. That’s where hearings take place. That’s where your ideas and an opponent’s ideas on a bill collide.

Hearings drag on all afternoon and into the early evening. Debate may turn on substantive disagreements or minute  aspects of a bill. Hammering out a committee-approved compromise on hundreds and hundreds of measures isn’t pretty, but it is truly democracy in action.

Floor action is often pre-ordained. The committee’s work is usually respected and accepted. That’s where you need to expend your resources. Those who influence the shaping of bills do so in committee, not the House or Senate floor.

12. Solve problems, don’t create them.

Gridlock isn’t pretty and it isn’t productive. Voters hate it. Yet with a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature, gridlock is a possibility.

It happened in Bob Ehrlich’s administration and legislative veterans want to avoid a repeat under Gov.-elect Larry Hogan.

You can do your part by not dragging politics into the legislative equation. Amending and improving bills that attack societal problems is more about applying common sense than imposing an ideology.

Finally, a word of caution:  You’re not in Annapolis to transform the world. You’re there simply to make things a little bit better.

Now, go out and enjoy this unique experience few ever get to taste. But for goodness sake, don’t get carried away and don’t forget that the best things in life usually involve compromise.

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