This June, SLLF will host the fourth annual Conference for State Majority Leaders (CSML) in Honolulu, Hawaii. As we prepare for this meeting, we thought we would revisit a paper that Steve Lakis, Ken Morton and Thom Little wrote after the first meeting three years ago in Atlanta, Georgia. The paper is entitled “Caught in the Middle: The Challenges of Being a State Legislative Majority Leader.”
Because of the many hats they wear, Majority Leaders are often caught in the middle between the interests of their party and their chamber; their governor and their institution; what is best for the state, the party and their district. Below, we summarize the multiple “hats” that so often put Majority Leaders in the middle.
Caught in the Middle: Majority Leaders Revisited
By Ken Morton, Thom Little, and Stephen Lakis
Air Traffic Controller. Just like an air traffic controller is in charge of coordinating the departures and arrivals of airplanes at an airport, many Majority Leaders are in charge of coordinating the introduction, consideration and dispensation of the thousands of bills introduced annually in their legislatures. In many states, it is the Majority Leader’s responsibility to determine if and how bills will be handled in the party caucus and on the floor once they have been released from the standing committees. Majority Leaders often determine the order in which bills will be heard, coordinate the witnesses for and against bills and schedule amendments and floor votes.
Child Care Providers. Child care providers have two primary responsibilities when it comes to their charges: 1) teach them what they need to know to move on to the next level and 2) keep them safe, clean and happy. These two responsibilities seem quite similar to those of the Majority Leaders with respect to the members of their caucus, especially those members in their first or second terms in the legislature. They are responsible for educating new members about the “rules of the game,” both formal and informal so that they and the party can succeed. And they are expected to help keep their members electorally safe and ethically clean so that the party can maintain its majority status.
Press Agent. In the world of social media, gotcha journalism and the paparazzi, anybody who is anybody has someone to handle traditional and social media. In the legislature, especially relative to the party caucus, that task may fall to the majority leader, as he or she is expected to represent the caucus to the press, to the public, the other party, to the other chamber and to the governor. Like it or not, they are often the voice of the legislative party. Further, it often falls to the Majority Leader, especially in caucuses and legislatures with limited staff, to make sure that rank-and-file members have the tools to deal effectively with the media.
Referee. In an athletic event, it is the role of the referee to make sure that the rules (written and sometimes, unwritten) are fairly enforced so that everyone gets a chance to play and succeed. Majority leaders function in a like manner with regard to their caucus, making sure that formal rules are enforced and the rules of civility encouraged. The Majority Leader often has to resolve disputes between legislators over policy, process or politics. Like referees in sports, it is virtually impossible to please everyone in resolving disputes and applying the rules, but it is a job that must be done.
Camp Counselor. However, majority leaders must do more than just prevent fights and enforce rules. They must also try to convince the members of their caucus who, while joined by party, are sometimes segregated by geography, ideology, governing philosophy and experiences to come together and achieve common goals. In short, they have to convince their members to “play nice,” hold hands and sing songs around the political campfire. This role has become increasingly difficult as the “campers” have become increasingly independent and strong willed, often more concerned about ideology, philosophy or district needs than the good of the party or the state.
Bullseye. Okay, being a bullseye is not a real job – but it is a part of the job of being a majority leader. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield told the story that one year his son asked loudly for a BB gun for Christmas, which he received. The son, in turn, got Dangerfield a shirt with a bullseye on the back! To a great extent the Majority Leader is much like that bullseye – he or she must often take the shots or the arrows so that they do not hit the presiding officer or the members of the caucus. They accomplish this task by avoiding controversial votes, sending problematic bills to committees that never meet and gathering enough votes for a controversial bill so that members in competitive districts can abstain or vote their district interests.
Yes, being Majority Leader is no easy task. He or she is often caught in the middle between politics and policy, party and institution, leadership and membership, and party and state or district. And yet, every two years, legislators line up to seek the position, working to recruit candidates, persuade colleagues, gain the support of the presiding officer and provide a concrete vision of where he or she will, if elected, take the caucus. Why do they do this?
Legislators seek the position of Majority Leader because, despite all of the challenges and headaches noted above, it is a position from which a successful, focused and creative legislator can make a difference. By managing legislation, grooming legislators, developing agendas and building public and legislative support for good bills, the Majority Leader can improve the lives of people across his or her state and help members of the caucus achieve their policy goals and become better leaders. That is why, despite the challenges and difficulties associated with the position, they run and that is why they lead.