Throughout my first legislative session, I heard many phrases and clichés used to describe the process I had just entered and the particular situation I found myself in -- coming in after a special election, thrown into the middle of the session to replace a man who had been a stalwart in Connecticut politics for nearly a quarter of a century. Perhaps the two clichés I heard most were “big shoes to fill” and “baptism by fire.” The former was a great motivational tool, whether or not it was intended to be; and the latter, well, that was exactly what it felt like for me.
I did not have the advantage of getting to know my colleagues during the period between the November election and the January swearing-in, nor was I able to use that time to acclimate myself with the legislative process. I missed the deadline to introduce bills. When I came in on Feb. 25, the public hearing process was well underway and I basically had to fend for myself.
My first public hearing was with the Judiciary Committee and dealt with the probate system, something I had at least a little familiarity with. It was a comforting way to start the session. But after only a couple of meetings, you realize that there’s no way you’re going to know everything about every issue that comes before you.
“There’s a lot to learn,” I said to a longtime legislator on the Judiciary Committee. His response was reassuring. “Don’t worry. After 20 years of being here, I’m still learning too.”
The old adage that you learn something new every day is magnified at the Capitol.
And so I quickly discovered that the best you can do is to make sure you do your research and pay attention to different peoples’ perspectives on the issues. Testimony at public hearings is immeasurably valuable. And so, believe it or not, is information from lobbyists.
Because of campaign finance reform, lobbyists are not able to wield as much political influence as they once did. But they are still significant sources of information. Their job is to know the issues inside and out. Legislators are not ashamed to ask a lobbyist what the arguments against his or her position are. And lobbyists are more than willing to give you those arguments and explain why they disagree with them.
Sometimes, yes, they can be vulturine in their tactics, one after another stopping you as you’re trying to enter a committee meeting for a vote, or step outside to use the restroom, throwing a flier in your face and asking you to commit to voting their way. But that is their job, and while it might not be the most glamorous of jobs, they do it well. And for me, since I try not to commit to a position unless it’s a complete no-brainer to me, I get to see them do their job a lot. But that is a bit selfish on my part -- it helps me to get the most up-to-date information on the issue.
Another thing I quickly noticed was that my colleagues from both sides of the aisle are all very approachable and willing to help. Debate is extraordinarily civil. While we have our differences of opinion, at the end of the day, we know that this is a difficult and volatile process, and to be friendly is not only the right thing to do, it’s the easy thing to do.
Perhaps it is reflective of the nature of the office -- you must be a people person to get this job. Or perhaps it is because we understand each other on a certain level, and we understand the unique things that we all experience as a result of what we do. You may not be able to tell that there is this sort of camaraderie by watching the news, since the media tend to focus on the sexier sound-bites of disagreement, but I assure you that camaraderie exists.
Of course, you think you finally get how the process works, and then in the final three to four weeks that knowledge unravels and you have to relearn it all over again.