New Legislators Learning the Ropes
25 new members of the state Assembly could change state politics. But first they need to learn all the rules and rituals.
Want an office job in a private business? Do well in interviews, take a personality test, pass the pee-in-a-cup drug test, and show up for work on the first day. Pretty soon you’ll have the hang of it.
But joining the state Assembly for the first time – as 25 of its 99 members will do on Jan. 5 – is nothing like that. The rules are much, much different. You just don’t walk into the Assembly chamber, sit at a desk and begin pushing the green/yes or red/no button for proposed bills.
“It’s like drinking from a fire hose for some of them for the first five or six months,” said Pat Fuller, the Assembly’s chief clerk and its administrator. In short, not easy to do. The 25 incoming Assembly members got hours of orientation and advice last week. They need it.
It’s one thing to get elected, but something else to learn how to function effectively — with fish-bowl scrutiny – in the most public building in Wisconsin. They got elected to change things, but they don’t know the tribal rites and rituals of being one of 132 lawmakers.
They’ve been given, and had to sign for, a thick booklet of Assembly rules. One thing it says: Do not campaign on state time, or allow staffers to campaign on state time. Several years ago, legislators from both parties went to jail for breaking that law. The booklet also advises them how to avoid conflicts-of-interest, if they keep their old jobs back home.
They’ve gone through a mock Assembly session, learned not to refer to other Assembly members by their names during floor debate, been advised by Speaker Robin Vos of the coat-and-tie dress code for men, and been told that – whew! – they won’t be called on to open the Assembly in prayer.
“Don’t worry!,” said one handout on rituals of an Assembly session day. “The speaker is not going to all of a sudden call on you to come up front and offer a prayer. The prayers are all arranged in advance.”
But if you want to pray in front of the Assembly and the world, since WisconsinEye broadcasts Assembly sessions live on the Internet, see Fuller, to arrange that. “We can always use more prayers,” he says.
In one-on-one meetings with Fuller, a no-nonsense veteran of 25 years in the Marine Corps and Army, every new Assembly member gets a key to their Capitol office, parking assignment, laptop computer, photo ID and some blunt advice. When you’re in political office, “You’re guilty until proven innocent,” Fuller tells them. “You’re going to be scrutinized.”
He adds: “You represent 55,000 constituents. Your leaders will be pushing you to vote a certain way. You’ll have to take some tough votes. But always remember who sent you here.”
Fuller also repeatedly tells new legislators to pick wisely when hire their one staff member wisely, whose salary ranges from $33,600 to $49,968 per year, depending on the staffer’s educational and Capitol experience.
Why does Fuller put so much importance on who new legislators hire? That aide is “the face of the legislator” when he or she is not in the Capitol, Fuller adds. And, if the aide doesn’t work a 40-hour week, it’s noticed.
Fuller’s hiring advice: “In order to keep up with the hectic pace of a legislative office during session, it is essential that staff be well organized and able to handle several situations at once. Selection of an employee should not be based on friendship, successful campaign experience or personal relationships, but rather on education, office/business experience at technical skills, along with personality and enthusiasm.”
New legislators say they need all the help they can get. “It’s been a lot to absorb,” said Republican Rep.-elect Romaine Quinn, of Rice Lake, in northeastern Wisconsin. Quinn will represent the 75th District. And she’s just 24, with plenty to learn.