Advice for newbies

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With 45 of 100 legislators in the Montana House new to the chamber and 15 of 50 new to the Senate, we certainly have a fresh crop of leaders making policy for the great people of our state. When I first went to Helena, I wished someone had offered a bit of insight into what’s important. So, for what it’s worth, take this bit of free and unsolicited advice.

Remember who you work for. This sage advice was uttered by an old-timer in Helena when I was feeling particularly disenchanted. Lawmakers do not work for lobbyists or bureaucrats, but rather the people back home.

Your word is your bond. As you give your word to a fellow lawmaker, constituent or lobbyist on how you view a particular policy you had better be prepared to keep it.

Vote district, conscience and then party. If it’s important to the folks back home, vote accordingly. If your conscience will not allow it, pause and ponder. But the parties will put tremendous pressure on you to follow their lead. And this may not always be in your district’s best interest.

Don’t be afraid of the different floors of the Capitol. The first floor is legislative staff. They have tremendous insight and historical perspective. Utilize them. Helping legislators is their job. The second floor is the executive branch. The executive staff knows the groundwork and wants to work with you on policy. Don’t be scared of these fine people. And the third floor is the Legislature. You know your chamber, but don’t forget to visit the other one.

There are three times as many lobbyists in Helena as lawmakers. And they want to be your best friends from January to the end of April. They will offer you all the booze and steaks that you can stomach. But again, remember who you work for.

Be proud of your district. There are 100 different House districts in Montana, and 50 Senate districts. All are unique. Advocate for your district. But be polite, respectful and honor decorum.

Don’t be afraid to compromise. This is not war. If you prefer, call compromise finding common ground or mutual understanding. But compromise is the art of politics and how the Legislature gets things done.

Become an expert in a given field. If something is particularly important to your district, become very knowledgeable in this policy. The campaign rhetoric or short sound bites will not serve anyone much.

Talk with the press. The press is the other group that is not mentioned, past the lobbyists. These are fine journalists covering the Legislature. Meet them and talk to them openly.

Work hard and answer the phone calls and notes you receive from the folks back home. Listen to your hometown and act on our behalf. Hometown folks know better. Feel lucky that we have an engaged populace. Don’t be selective on who you talk to.

For goodness sake, don’t take it personally. The old adage about how there is no crying in politics is a tough one. The debates will be fierce, the competition tough, but do not take it personally. Share a laugh or a hamburger with your fiercest opponents. Get to know them, and no doubt you will find them to be kind and share many common goals.

With great responsibility of being elected to represent people, also come great challenges. But enjoy your service. Your time is short, a minor blip in Montana’s history. You will create relationships that last a lifetime. People respect those who are friendly and enjoy life. Be kind to each other and remember who you work for.

Mike Jopek



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