By Thom Little, Ph.D.

Fifty years. A half a century. Five whole decades. That’s how long the State Legislative Leaders Foundation (SLLF) has been working with America’s state legislative leaders and Stephen G. Lakis has been there every step of the way! In 1972, a recently married Steve Lakis was working for the Connecticut Senate and moonlighting at G. Fox and Company department store selling suits when he was offered a full-time position with the newly formed State Legislative Leaders Foundation. SLLF was one of several organizations that had received a grant from the Ford Foundation to implement recommendations from their recent study of state legislatures and Steve was hired to work in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire, despite the fact that he had never set foot in any of those statehouses!

After a few years, the Ford grant ran out and SLLF, now headquartered in Wisconsin, was on the verge of shutting its doors when Steve had a new vision for the organization. After a friend invited him to attend an orientation at Harvard for new members of Congress, Steve decided SLLF could and should provide similar training for state legislative leaders. With the approval of the Board of Directors, Lakis took over as President in 1981, moved the foundation to Cape Cod and began to build relationships with America’s top corporations to provide financial support and with that the Advisory Council was born adding the unique and important voice of the business community. 

On Cape Cod, Steve and his family befriended Tom and Marcia VanderVoort and Steve asked Marcia if she would be interested in assisting him as he struggled to grow the fledgling organization.  Fortunately for all of us, she agreed and the VanderVoort dining room became the Cape Cod office of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation.

Not surprisingly, there were some growing pains as Steve and Marcia worked to expand the scope and footprint of SLLF and transform it from a narrowly-focused grant-funded organization to a national foundation dedicated to educating and assisting state legislative leaders across the nation. There was the late-night call from a hotel in California telling Steve that his credit card had been rejected. There was the quick exit from the office of the Internal Revenue Service when Steve was informed that SLLF’s back taxes had been forgiven. There was the Thanksgiving meal at the VanderVoorts accompanied by a large mainframe computer and finally a real office – above a liquor store and next door to a hair salon where the circuits could not handle both the SLLF’s computer and the hairdresser’s perms.

Through it all, Steve and Marcia, with the encouragement of SLLF’s Board Chair, Massachusetts Senate President William M. Bulger, persevered and SLLF slowly grew in reputation and impact. In 1983, SLLF held its first educational program for state legislative leaders at Boston University attended by more than three dozen leaders from across the nation. A few years later the programs expanded to the West coast in partnership with the University of California. And with that, the formula that would serve the SLLF well for another four decades was set: partner with universities and other educational institutions to host programs exploring significant public policy and leadership issues, featuring nationally and internationally recognized nonpartisan experts. Build it and they will come, and come they did. Once leaders recognized the value of these programs, they came from across the nation to SLLF’s Leaders Emerging Issues Program (LEIP) and Leaders Advanced Management Programs (LAMP). Over the next three decades, SLLF would add the National Speakers Conference (1994), the Emerging Leaders Program (1995 and rebooted in 2005) at the University of Virginia, the New Speakers Orientation (2001), the Conference of State Majority Leaders (2013) and the Women’s Legislative Leadership Program (2019) to its growing list of offerings.

But SLLF was not satisfied just working with  legislative leaders in the United States. Beginning in the late 1990’s, SLLF expanded its reach beyond the United States with a series of programs in Europe and Asia. As SLLF entered the twenty-first century, it formed SLLF-Europe, conducting programs across Europe including in Poland, Ukraine, Luxembourg, Italy, Greece and Ireland. As the first decade of the century came to a close, SLLF began a relationship with China, conducting programs across that vast nation and bringing Chinese leaders to the US, and even ventured into South and Central America with programs in Mexico and Argentina.

Fifty years down and looking forward to fifty more. So, as Steve always says, “Buckle up”, because if the last fifty years have taught us anything, it’s that we are in for an exciting ride as the State Legislative Leaders Foundation adjusts and adapts to the ever-changing world of state legislatures!