What I Would Have Told Those Fresh Faces at Academy for New Legislators

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Last week, members-elect of the Massachusetts legislature and legislators who won special elections during the 2017-18 session attended an Academy for New Legislators at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. 

An event designed to prepare them for their new responsibilities and to smooth their transitions to life in the legislature, the Academy included simulated committee hearings on bills, a simulated legislative session, question-and-answer sessions with current legislators, panel discussions on weighty topics (e.g., “the new world of communications”), presentations on the state budget process, the rules of the House and Senate, legislative ethics, and more.  (There were three days to kill here.)
Perusing the Academy web site the other day, I found myself daydreaming about what I would have said to those legislative newbies if, by some massive error or misunderstanding on the part of UMass, I was invited to speak there.

Daydreaming led to jotting ideas on paper.  Before I knew it, I had drafted a series of steps I’d recommend to anyone aspiring to mover-and-shaker status on Beacon Hill.  The working title I scrawled at the top of the page was: What to Do at the State House If You Don’t Want to Be Irrelevant
Here’s the text:

  1. Before you take the oath of office, carefully study legislature’s committee structure.
  2. Identify a committee or two that offers best chance of ultimately delivering something your district badly needs and/or could benefit from in multiple ways.
  3. Upon taking office, establish friendships with alpha dogs in your branch: House Speaker, Senate President, Majority Leaders, Ways & Means Chairs, et al.
  4. Do not be shy about expressing your interest in serving on the committee of your dreams.
  5. If appointed to said committee, work hard and long at the business at hand.
  6. Constantly build and deepen relationships with alpha dogs.
  7. Become an expert on issues under your dream committee’s purview.
  8. Maximize all networking opportunities so that peers come to recognize your expertise.
  9. Get re-elected.
  10. During second term, successfully seek vice chairmanship of committee.
  11. Pay attention to everything “in the building.” Work hard, work smart.
  12. Get re-elected.
  13. During third term, secure committee chairmanship if it becomes available. (By virtue of chairmanship, you are now considered a member of leadership.)
  14. Over time, strongly define your leadership profile while remaining humble and helpful to all, and especially to Speaker or President.
  15. Become trusted, ever dependable insider on small team around Speaker or President.
  16. Get re-elected.
  17. When time is ripe, when all ducks are lined up, introduce your district’s dream project and start calling in chits to move it forward.
  18. Work hard but don’t ever show the strain. 
  19. Develop the patience of a sage.
  20. Help other leadership members with their priorities at every juncture.
  21. Don’t talk too much or issue oodles of press releases.
  22. Do everything possible, every little thing, to move dream project over goal lines in both House and Senate, while also cultivating Governor and staff on the side.  (You’ll need him or her to sign your bill or approve your budget item.)
  23. Get re-elected. 
  24. Repeat process next session.
If the new legislators doubted my formula, I would have encouraged them to do a little research on John D. Keenan of Salem, a Harvard grad and attorney who served in the House (2005-2014) and is now president of Salem State University.  When he entered the legislature, Keenan knew the big coal-fired power plant in his city, a major taxpayer and employer, was coming to the end of its useful life, and would have to be phased out at some time during his expected tenure. 

Keenan then set out to become a member and eventual House chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, a perch from which he engineered a special section of an energy bill that delivered millions of dollars to Salem to compensate it for the loss of the plant and to help the city redevelop the site. 

This was a once-in-a-generation development for Keenan’s community.  He pulled the operation off masterfully with the state senator then responsible for Salem, the late, great Fred Berry of Peabody. 
Shamelessly, I would have recommended to Academy goers that they begin their research at a blog post I wrote in August of 2012.  Here’s a link to that post:

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