Can You Keep 55,000 “Bosses” Happy?
So, do you think you’ve mastered being a “parttime” legislator, now that you know about voting on bills and pushing your own legislation? Guess again! You’ve got 55,000 citizens in your district, and every day at least a few of them find reason to collar you. These are “constituent calls”, which come in infinite variety, though they thankfully fall into a few general categories. Folks are frequently worked up about legislation, and want to either give you an earful on a bill, put you on the spot about your vote, or both. They often want to grump about crummy performance of government. They may want you to come to their event, whether to speak, or just to be seen (in other words, be a politician!). Sometimes, during the legislative session, they plan on coming to the State Capitol to see their legislature in action, and want to visit with you while they’re in town. Or, and this is the broadest category (and the most taxing of your abilities!), they have a problem. To solve their problem, they need, or at least think they need, your help.
The vast majority of these problems are with, or caused by, GOVERNMENT! Regulations are onerous, expensive to comply with, inflexible and sometimes just wrong. Government bureaucrats can be obnoxious, slow or are just ornery and won’t do what they’re supposed to do. Benefit programs are confusing, hard to sign up for and may end without warning and for no explicable reason. And these are just a few broad types of government problems. You, as a legislator, are automatically a very public face of Big Government (whether you like its existence or not!). This puts you on the front line to absorb the pent-up frustrations of citizens upset with the performance of this massive service machine – and then you have to solve the problem, too!
According to some, as a high official, you are supposed to have a magic wand to simply wave problems away. But sometimes the magic doesn’t work! Problems can be with a facet of government you’ve never heard of before (learn what it does, fast!); often are with some other level of government, be it local or federal (and you’re automatically guilty of “passing the buck” when you transfer the problem to someone at that level); are almost inevitably caused by an arm of government that doesn’t directly report to the legislature (executive or judicial branch, or an exasperating independent authority!); or are simply a matter of a program not meeting the expectations of your constituent in some way, shape or form (which I’ve come to realize is, by definition, a description of any government program).
Of course, life can involve problems that are not caused by, or sought to be solved by government, and you get plenty of those too! Since legislators deal in law, a fair number of folks assume you must automatically be an attorney. And since having a title means you work for the people, this further implies that you are to provide free legal services to help sort out some mess or another. Talk about a minefield! Then there are a certain number of people who will contact you simply to vent about the sorry state of things in general (usually by email, but sometimes by phone…). You will even see a few instances of some poor soul just needing a shoulder to cry on, because their life seems to be coming apart at the seams. You can try to console them a bit, always offer to pray for them, and respectfully try to offer a few suggestions of where they might turn, but you inevitably feel inadequate!
No matter the source of the problem, you’d better figure out some way to address the issue, because this person’s vote is on the line, along with those of the other 10 to 20 people that statistics inform us they will tell if they are not satisfied. Familiar with the old phrase “the customer is always right”? Constituents are – another “by definition” here – inalienably right!
Yet at the same time, while this all adds up to a fair amount of work and frustration, it’s also a splendid opportunity. Fortunately, I understood this before I ever signed on the dotted line to run for office. The knowledge came from being the Newton County Republican Party chairman in earlier years. Countless times, I heard people grouse about some elected official or another. It often took the form of “that lousy so-and-so never returned my call (or email)”, or “I asked him to help me with…, and he didn’t do a thing!”. And almost as often, I was aware of someone I knew had an interest in that elected office standing in the background, drinking it all in. I came to realize there was an almost mathematical predictability for generating primary election challenges at work here!
My response to this insight has been hyper attention to constituent work. Rule number one was to respond, in some fashion or another, within 24 hours (though I’ve made an exception where the initial contact was hostile, insulting, derogatory or all of the above!). Then, if the issue was more than something that could be satisfied with an initial response, I just kept after it. This gets very time intensive, and the commitment grows with the number of years you’ve been in office, since you are better known with the passage of time. However, it’s an investment that has paid off in the number of election cycles where I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of having no opponent. And, by contrast, I’ve been aware of a few other legislators who consistently blow off their constituent work, and just as consistently have insanely expensive campaign seasons. Maybe I just really dislike fundraising!
Next week, get in the groove with some legislator lingo!