Rod St. Aubyn: What Makes A Good Legislator?


With campaign season in full swing, I thought about all the billboards, brochures, advertisements and other campaign materials.  Just how does the average citizen determine who they should vote for as their next state legislator especially between an incumbent and a new candidate?  Having had the opportunity to observe legislators up close as a fellow legislator and also as a lobbyist for almost 15 years, I have seen the worst examples and also the best examples.  For the most part, ND state legislators from both parties are truly there for the right reason, as a public service.  We really do have a good system in ND with our citizen legislature.  There has been constant turnover.  It is not a permanent position and the need for term limits have not been needed.  If it were a full-time permanent position I fear that everything would change.

Though most legislators have good intentions, I have to chuckle when I hear observations from other lobbyists and other insiders.  Comments like “How did he/she ever get elected?”  Legislators and people that work closely with the legislators, like state lobbyists, know which legislators are most effective.  I often thought how valuable it would be to have a confidential survey completed by legislators and lobbyists evaluating legislators.  The survey results could then be published.  The problem is that I am not sure how accurate and truthful the results would be.  I suspect that long term the survey would be a useless tool.

So how should we evaluate our legislators?

Is it based on the number of bills that the legislator sponsors?  I have witnessed legislators who sponsor a tremendous number of bills.  If they are prime sponsors, they are often leaving committee hearings, where the important work is done, so they can testify about their bills in other committees.  This creates a real problem when they leave their assigned committee pushing a lot of work for the other committee members.  Committee work is probably the most important duty for a legislator, aside from actual floor votes.

Is it based on the number of floor speeches the legislator makes?  When a legislator continually gets up to make a floor speech, with the exception of a committee chair, many cynical legislators often make private comments like, “I wonder what office he/she is planning on running for during the next election?”  Though it may be a cynical question, I have seen this come true numerous times.

Is it based on the legislator’s support for your position on particular bills, such as being pro-life?  Though I can understand the importance of this issue for many people, what if you are fiscally conservative AND pro-life and the legislator votes against pro-life legislation, but has consistently voted for fiscally conservative budgets.  Though a very important issue, legislators vote each session on almost 1,000 bills and these pro-life/pro-choice bills may total 5 or less. In addition, sometimes pro-life legislators may vote against a pro-life bill because of some provision within the bill.  Does that mean that the legislator is wrong according to that pro-life voter?

Is it based on the ranking of that legislator on some interest group legislative scorecard?  Unfortunately these rankings are often misleading and subjective.  A legislator may vote on a version of a bill multiple times through the course of its process – committee vote, full house vote, the amended bill vote once it comes back to the house of origin, the conference committee vote.  So which vote is most important and which vote is used in the scorecard?  Legislators may have multiple reasons for voting for or against a particular bill – particular sections of the bill, impacts on other issues, fiscal impact, belief that it may be unconstitutional.

My best advice to a voter is to determine the issues that are most important to him or her.  Then talk to the candidate, whether it is an incumbent legislator or a new candidate, and ask them their views on those topics.  Typically candidates are making their door-to-door visits now.  Legislators are generally very open to talking to their constituents.  If an incumbent voted against legislation in the past that you really supported, ask for their reasons for voting against the bill.  Their answer may surprise you and it may be that they actually mirror your views on the issue.  If their reasoning is not what you can support, then you have your answer.

Another suggestion is to visit with another legislator that you know and that you personally have supported their positions in the past.  Or ask others who are present during legislative sessions their opinions of candidates, such as lobbyists.  Ask them if they feel that this candidate/legislator has been or will be effective as a legislator.  There is a lot more to being an effective legislator than just voting.  An effective legislator knows how to work with other legislators in getting important amendments approved to properly shape a bill.  It is a known fact that when some legislators get up to talk on the floor, it automatically results in the other party voting against that particular legislator’s issue just because he/she is so polarizing.  This is true in both political parties.  A good legislator is an active participant in committees and is not just a “show boat” during floor debates trying to garner media attention.

The important point that I want to make is to become an educated voter.  Do a little homework and feel good about making an educated choice.