Capitol View - What Makes An Effective Legislator, Part II

By J.L. Schmidt - Statehouse Correspondent, The Nebraska Press Association

A number of new faces will be joining the ranks in the nation’s only one-house Legislature in January. They will have big shoes to fill as they try to become players quickly during a year that features the crafting of a new state budget and other routine business that might be overshadowed by on-going debate about pipelines and health care issues and the economy.

So we continue to look at what it takes to be an effective Nebraska State Senator.

Last week we told you that tops on former Senator Sandy Scofield’s list is broad experience. The Panhandle native said a senator also needs to be articulate, able and willing to study issues and quick on his or her feet.

Former Senator John Lindsay of Omaha agreed with Scofield’s assessment, adding that being a state senator is hard work. It is hard work and time consuming to get elected and even more time consuming to learn the issues.

A successful state senator has to be willing to adapt. You may be 100 percent certain that you are correct about an issue, but you have to realize there are 48 other senators in there and they probably think they have the right answer too, Lindsay said. Bismarck was right, he said, “Politics is the art of the possible.”

Keeping a sense of humor is also essential. You have to be able to laugh at yourself, no matter how tough the issue or prolonged the debate, the fight and the fallout. Take it seriously, but be able to let it go when necessary, he said.

An effective senator also has to know his or her district, something that is often learned in the door-to-door campaign for the job. The people and the issues are important, whether urban or rural. It may seem easier in Lincoln and Omaha where multiple districts and senators can relate to a like issue with natural allies. But urban senators also have to understand rural issues. He agrees with Scofield on the importance of speaking Sandhills.

When he chaired the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, Lindsay took the senators on an interim study road trip with stops in O’Neill and Valentine and Chadron, among others. He said he discovered that even in rural areas, the issues many might term as “farm issues” were different for dry land and irrigated crop farmers. 

The fundamental problem is that rural senators don’t understand that urban senators are trying to understand the rural perspective. Veteran lawmaker Ernie Chambers, who represented the inner city of Omaha, was a long time member of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee. It’s all about perspective, Lindsay said. I probably see things driving through the Sandhills that someone who has lived there for years takes for granted. The same is true for a rural senator looking at Omaha or Lincoln issues.

Be it urban or rural, it is not a bad thing that state senators work hard to understand each other’s perspective. It may be hard work. But nobody ever said that compromise or lawmaking comes easy.

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