By Thom Little, Ph.D.

As many of you know, for more than two decades now, SLLF has sponsored the Emerging Legislative Leaders Program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Each year, we invite the party leaders in each chamber in all fifty states to nominate first and second term legislators to attend the program. I am often asked why SLLF, which usually focuses its attention on legislative leaders, offers a program for new legislators. I answer that question by referencing one of my favorite leadership books: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” by Marshall Goldsmith. As the title implies, the author is suggesting that the attributes and skills that got you to a given leadership position may not be sufficient for you to do the job effectively once you are there. This is as true for newly elected state legislators as it is for the newly promoted mid-level managers that Goldsmith was writing to.

While winning an election gives candidates the opportunity to govern, it does little or nothing to prepare them to govern. In fact, modern campaigns emphasize the very attributes and qualities that make it more, not less, difficult to govern. Candidates who win modern elections are those who can raise the most money, hire the best media consultants and offer the most biting and personal (and often inaccurate) attacks on their opponents, their families, their political party and the legislative institution. Modern campaigns are about burning bridges not building them, built more on political fiction than on policy fact, designed to magnify differences more than encourage compromise.

On the other hand, successful legislators are those who act with integrity, work well with others, understand the facts and play by the accepted rules and norms of behavior. Find below some of the attitudes and attributes that make an effective legislator, but are not generally associated with successful legislative candidates.

Honor the Institution. Newly elected state legislators need to know that they are part of an experiment in self-government and legislative institutions that go back more than two hundred and fifty years. While these institutions are far from perfect and periodic reforms are necessary, that does not mean they should be torn down brick by brick. And yet, many candidates who run for office today do so on the promise to do just that. They run for the legislature by running against it. As candidates, they rail against the norms and rules that govern the body only to find that those very rules and norms are critical to its (and to their) success as elected officials. That is why we must encourage them to honor the institution.

Keep Your Word. Legislative success is built on trust. A legislator’s word is the primary capital of a policymaker and once it is gone, you really can’t get it back. When working with colleagues, you have to say what you mean and mean what you say. While being true to your word used to be important in political campaigns, in a world of misinformation and alternate facts, candidates seem to stretch or even break the truth with impunity and with little political consequences. Indeed, in the modern campaign, exaggeration and outright lying seem to be the norm rather than the exception. That is why we must remind them that within the institution, it is important to keep your word.

Integrity Matters. While taking the low road, appealing to the lowest common denominator and pushing the legal and ethical boundaries is the norm in modern political campaigns, it is not acceptable in the legislative institution. Just because an action is legal, does not make it right. Understand that ethical lapses, intentional or not, will come to light and will damage your representation among those you serve and those you serve with. Understanding legislative norms and ethical responsibilities is vital, not only to the institution and your constituents, but to yourself and to your success as a legislator

Master the Rules. Elections have a lot of rules. Violating those rules might disqualify your candidacy, but knowing them does not really guarantee your success.  In fact, most candidates rely on their campaign staff, especially their treasurer and financial team, to know the rules and make sure they are abided by. However, within the legislative institution, knowledge of the rules that govern debate and procedure can mean the difference between success and failure. Legislators who understand the rules can use them to kill, amend or revive a bill before many of their colleagues know what has happened. He or she who knows the rules, rules.

Be a Workhorse. Former US Senator Carl Hayden was fond of saying, “There are two kinds of congressmen– workhorses and show horses.” This is just as true for state legislatures as for their national counterparts. Show horses are those legislators who are more concerned about getting attention than getting the job done while workhorses focus on working with their colleagues to pass effective legislation. Candidates who are show horses are often rewarded- they get press, social media clicks and attention that may help them get elected. On the other hand, legislators who are work horses are rewarded within the institution. They are respected. They are listened to. Their bills become law. Be a workhorse, not a show horse.

Be An Expert. Legislative candidates are expected to know something about everything from pork belly futures to the latest AP basketball poll. On the other hand, the most effective legislators are those who focus on a few key issues and develop an expertise in those areas. Legislators vote on far too many issues to be personally informed about each one, so they rely on experts they trust. They look to one colleague for guidance on health care, another for direction on education and another for information on technology. Be the expert that others look to for direction and you can influence public policy.

Build Relationships, Don’t Burn Bridges. Political campaigns are adversarial- it is us vs. them; progressives vs. moderates; Democrats vs. Republicans. It is a zero-sum game. If you lose, your opponent wins, end of story. The legislative process is very different. While you may win or lose on a particular bill, that is not the end of the story– far from it. It is imperative that you be able to work tomorrow with the person that you fought with today. As a candidate, win or lose, you are not likely to need the support of your opponent in the future. As a legislator, you most assuredly will. So, there you have it. This is why SLLF has hosted its Emerging Legislative Leaders Program for more than two decades. Our institutions and our people deserve no less. If you are a presiding officer or a minority leader and have not yet nominated your rising stars for the 2023 class, there is still time. Remember to nominate your best and brightest by March 15! (Email Gianna Diefendorf for additional details.)