Seven years ago, minus a month, I was sworn in to the Utah House of Representatives as a mid-term vacancy appointment. Six years ago, I compiled a list of advice for new freshman, based on what I had learned. As a new class of freshman will soon be sworn in, here is my advice as you enter the halls of power.
Prepare to be overwhelmed. No matter how ready you are, you’ll still be drinking from the firehose. Luckily, the session starts slowing and builds — to a frenetic pace. The Capitol is also a powerful germ incubator. If you somehow manage to avoid getting sick during the session, you can expect to be walloped after the session. Plan to do as much as you can to keep your immune system healthy.
However, you will be inundated with food of all kinds and an unending supply of soda. Choose wisely. If you have an aversion to caffeine, you’ll either want to get over it, prepare to be very sleepy or figure out some other option to help you stay awake through some very long days.
President’s Day is the best thing ever! That one day break in the middle of the session is much-needed and much appreciated. Really use it as a break day, too, not just an extra work day
You will be invited to a bajillion events during the session. In spite of how much you might want to, you won’t be able to go to them all. You do need to go to some. Plan accordingly.
It’s worth the extra sleep and work time if you stay in Salt Lake and don’t commute except on weekends. The time saved can add up to many hours you could use elsewhere.
Every stereotype you’ve heard about the Legislature is true. Remember junior high? Yeah, it’s like that. At the same time, some of my dearest friends have come from my time on the Hill. Learn the difference between your “real” friends and your “political” friends. And remember when you’re being told you’re the brightest freshman the Hill has seen in years, that, as my husband liked to remind me, lobbyists are paid to be your friend.
You may have the most brilliant bill idea ever conceived, but you cannot get it passed by yourself. The magic numbers are 38-15-1 - you need 38 votes in the House, 15 in the Senate and a governor not to veto your bill before your idea becomes law. You must build coalitions and work with others.
The other body is not your enemy. We need both the House and the Senate in our state, we need them to work together — and most of the time they do, very well. Also, the press is not your enemy. But you can turn them into adversaries if you try.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions — no one expects you to know it all. (And you don’t.) On the flip side, listen far more than you talk and avoid freshman-itis – that tendency to think you’re an expert in everything and to voice an opinion on everything.
Develop a thick skin – you’ll quickly find out how free people feel to tell you exactly what they think. Avoid lobbing bombs back to them. And never pull the “Don’t you know who I am?!” card.
Have a solid circle of friends and family who will keep you grounded. You are neither as brilliant as the lobbyists tell you, nor as awful as the emails and letters you will receive may tell you.
Make it easy for your constituents to contact you – have an email sign-up form on your website (start a new one if you need to), ramp up your social media presence and have contact information readily available and easy to find. Be proactive in communicating with constituents during the session and beyond - after all, they are the reason you are there.
Finally, have fun! You deal with important business that needs to be addressed carefully and seriously, but believe me, a humorless legislator is not much fun to work with. Good luck!
Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, salutes those preparing to enter the arena. You’ll likely leave a little bloodied and bruised, but props to you for stepping up!