Success in the States: How Outstanding State Lawmakers Lead and Govern

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Daniel Stid
January 30, 2023

On December 13, 2022, Lyceum Labs convened outstanding state lawmakers and the leaders of three nonprofit organizations dedicated to supporting them for a set of panel discussions in Washington, DC. Our goal was to understand how these lawmakers have achieved their success – and how to enable others to follow suit.

You can watch a full recording of the event here.

The lawmakers participating included Representative Ajay Pittman and Senator John Michael Montgomery of the Oklahoma State Legislature, Senator Sara Gelser Blouin of the Oregon State Senate, and former Florida State Representative and Senator Jeff Brandes.

We selected these stellar politicians because they have each recently been recognized by our co-hosting organizations as being very good at what they do. Leaders of these organizations joining the lawmakers on the panels included Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, Jim Townsend of the Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy at Wayne Law, and Layla Zaidane of the Millennial Action Project.

Two convictions prompted us to organize this event. First, state legislatures, and those serving in them, really matter in governing the United States. We tend to focus on politics and government in Washington, but states make and administer the lion’s share of the laws that bear most directly on Americans’ day-to-day lives, e.g., in education, transportation, public health, policing, housing, etc. States matter even more now given that more federal resources than usual are flowing to and through state governments. It is also worth noting that typically one half of the members in a given Congress have served in statehouses, which is where they master (or fail to) how to represent diverse constituents and make and oversee policies effectively.

Second, there are better and worse ways of going about being a state lawmaker, just as there are with any complex set of tasks and responsibilities human beings tackle. While some politicians are cynical, hyperpartisan, performative show horses rather than substantive workhorses, many elected officials, perhaps even most, are public spirited. They ran for office at least in part because they want to make their city, state, or country a better place. And some politicians are very good at what they do–excellent even. Their number includes the lawmakers we invited to join us for the “Success in the States” event.

It is hard to distill the collective wisdom and experience of the panelists into a concise summary, so we would encourage you to watch a video of the event which you can access here. That said, by way of wrapping up the discussion, Daniel underscored and paraphrased several comments and insights that the lawmakers had shared during the course of the panels. I reprise the list here to give a feel for the tenor of our discussions:

  • Search out common ground – where can you agree?
  • Get to know your fellow lawmakers. It’s all about relationships.
  • Governance is about patience and persistence.
  • You’ve got to learn and understand how the system works.
  • There are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies in politics.
  • You can’t get everything you want all at once.
  • Know what your legislative agenda is. Focus on the outcomes you want to achieve.
  • Pick a topic, learn more about it than anyone else, and become indispensable.
  • Read the bill. Every word on the bill matters.
  • Politics is like theater. We all have lines we need to say at certain points. But don’t take it personally.
  • Climb up the tree to look around – that is what oversight is.
  • Laws are words on paper. Implementation is what brings them to life.

We plan on this event being the first in a series we will be orchestrating to hear from effective politicians about how they go about practicing their craft and the lessons they have learned, sometimes the hard way, as their careers have progressed. Stay tuned!

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Daniel Stid
Daniel Stid is the Executive Director of Lyceum Labs.