What makes an effective legislator?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

With more than half of the seats in the nation's only one-house Legislature up for grabs in less than a month, let's consider what an effective Nebraska State Senator looks like.

Term limits has exacted a painful toll on the Unicameral with the departure of a popular Speaker of the Legislature and five committee chairs among nine veteran incumbents. Does that mean there will be a leadership void in the next session? Can a number of one-term senators step up to the plate? And what kind of pressure does the whole scenario put on the nine newbies?

It's a question that begs advice from the "experts," former state senators who stepped away from the George W. Norris Legislative Chamber some years ago and have had time to reflect.

Tops on former Senator Sandy Scofield's list is broad experience. The Panhandle native who represented some of the most beautiful and sparsely populated parts of the state (she lived on Deadhorse Creek southwest of Chadron) said that many times a senator has to call on what they know from personal experience to know how to vote on an issue. Two county fairs and a rodeo may not be enough.

That is followed by being ready to go toe-to-toe with the Governor. She said the Legislature should ideally serve as a check-and-balance for the sometimes-goofy ideas brought up by governors. But that's not always the case.

An effective legislator should also be articulate, able and willing to spend time studying issues and quick on his or her feet. Scofield says a senator has to represent his or her constituents and speak their language.

But they also need to speak and understand the languages of other senators. Bottom line, it's great to be able to speak Sandhills, but you also have to be able to speak Lincoln and Omaha to be really effective.

The late George Coordsen, a former state Senator from Gilead in south central Nebraska, once said all rural senators had at least been to Omaha and Lincoln and thus had some idea of their issues. But, it's possible for an urban senator to never have been very far off of I-80.

It wasn't that many years ago that the late Gene Mahoney, a senator from South Omaha, was making a plea for votes from rural senators for a bill that was being considered. As he closed on the bill and watched the green "yes" votes light up on the board, he said that Omaha senators vote their own conscience just like rural senators. He said there were no caucuses or collusion to unite the senators in one vote.

Just then the doors to the Rotunda opened and fellow Omaha Senator Tom Fitzgerald came down the center aisle into the chamber.

In a loud voice he asked, "Hey Gene O, how are we supposed to vote on this one?"

Veteran observers say they have never seen a tote board change colors, from green to red, "yes" to "no," faster. The suddenly red-lighted tally board seemed to be reflected in Mahoney's red face.

NEXT WEEK: Thoughts from a veteran former Omaha Senator.

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