Rod St. Aubyn: If Only They Knew

As the legislative session gets close to the end, legislators and lobbyists often have a lot of time on their hands unless they are tied up with specific Conference Committees. Spare time is often spent in the Capitol Cafeteria drinking coffee with other legislators or lobbyists until specific Conference Committees are scheduled.

It is a time of reflection on the legislative session and its players. Typically many legislators speak of their frustrations and their expressions that they will never run again. However as another said, “it is not unlike a woman who just gives birth and vows to never have another child. But after a bit of time you forget the pain and decide to have another child.” The legislator said that deciding to run again is similar. I’m not sure that this is a fair comparison, but I have heard this statement more times than I care to remember.

Often the coffee conversations evolve into complaints about other legislators who are arrogant, or others who are only interested in their own self-interests, or wonderment how some legislators are even elected. One legislator expressed astonishment how the general public does NOT see how the legislator really is. One comment that was made was “if the public only knew how their legislator was perceived in Bismarck, I cannot believe he (she) would be elected.”

Right now, legislators and lobbyists would be reluctant to publicly identify these “bad apples” for fear of retribution. However if a confidential survey with enough respondents were done it would truly be a public service.

Despite the frustrations expressed by the legislators and lobbyists, for the most part the legislators are there for the right reason. In fact, I have been impressed with several first term legislators. However, I also see a few legislators who are not viewed favorably and I also question how they get elected or in some cases re-elected. I remember a few years ago one freshman legislator who was absolutely petrified about speaking on the floor or to “carry a bill.” I wondered how the legislator ever campaigned or ever appeared in public in their district. I must admit, that the legislator did improve after several years.

And portrayals by the media are not always accurate. How often do we see letters to the editor either for or against some legislator or their position on a bill that are clearly written by political loyalists? Legislative leaders are often forced to take a particular stand for their caucuses (both parties) and the media often do not paint the most flattering picture. Legislators and lobbyists who are present for the many hours and days of the legislative session actually see which legislators are the most effective legislators. They recognize which legislators have the most respect and are known for their credibility. They instantly know which legislators are mostly partisan and which ones are actually willing to consider the “other side.” Certain legislators can actually sway the vote when speaking on the floor against a committee recommendation. Other legislators who speak on the floor instantly solidifies the vote against that legislator’s position by the opposite party and also some within their own party. This goes for both parties.

Because a lot of time is between a legislative session and the next election, a person’s memory is often short and they forget what happened in the last legislative session. One lobbyist said that the election should occur two weeks after a legislative session. That way, people’s memories would be fresh.

During a recent “coffee conversation” one legislator suggested that there should be survey of legislators completed by legislators and lobbyists of the most effective legislators and that the survey result should be shared with the public. That way the constituents would know what those that work with the legislators the most actually think of their legislator.

It is an interesting idea worth considering. However, it would be dependent upon getting enough responses to make it reliable. Otherwise the results could be intentionally skewed. One of the merits is that legislators would then know that their behaviors would become widely distributed and they may decide to change those negative traits (arrogance, self-serving, extreme partisanship, etc.) or their constituents would know and decide to replace them.

Right now, legislators and lobbyists would be reluctant to publicly identify these “bad apples” for fear of retribution. However if a confidential survey with enough respondents were done it would truly be a public service. I recognize that the right questions would have to be asked and how they are written would be extremely important to make the survey fair. If done properly, this survey would help bring more transparency to the picture. A fair survey could help eliminate the “if the public only knew” comment and in the long run improve our legislature.

Rob Port is the editor of, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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