By Jerry Kopel
Question: What's the difference between the state legislature and a very small town?
Answer: There is no difference.
When your legislators joined others at the state capitol on January 8th, they began a journey that will last for the next four months. In most cases, they'll be sitting several feet from others in the House or Senate, sitting behind, in front, and on both sides of legislators.
People in small towns have houses, and legislators do have offices away from the legislative chambers. But for the next four months, legislators will likely see more of each other than they do of their families.
In a very small town, people are close. That doesn't mean they are all friends. But when you are close, it's hard to hide a true personality, actual ability, or lack of ability, behind a facade.
For better or worse, halfway through a legislator's first year, he or she is pegged at a certain level, and it may take years before original perceptions are discarded.
In a small town, and in the legislature, everyone knows everyone else's "business" at work or at play. And if you don't know the latest, somone is sure to voluntarily tell you.
Gossip at the legislature is a source of information and jokes. Weaknesses are exaggerated in a jocular, but mean fashion. One legislator will whisper in another's ear "She (or he) has the intelligence of a blade of grass."
The press is ready to pounce on moral failures, if the failures become public. The press in Colorado has always really been kind to legislators when they can, but they point out "if you don't want to read about it in the newspapers tomorrow morning, then don't do it."
Certainly legislative friendships are important, just as they are in the outside world, but someone has to take the first step. In running for office one has to "break the ice" at neighborhood association meetings in order to corral election votes. Legislators also have to reach out across political lines to meet and know members of the "other" party.
If you grow up in a small town, friends come naturally over the years. But when you are suddenly thrust in a legislature with strangers (one-fifth to one-quarter of all members are usually new every two years) the most successful members are those who read about, study their new associates, and invite them to lunch or dinner.
Why is that? The secret of the legislature is that most bills introduced are NOT partisan. If your legislator goes out of his or her way to make friends in both the House and Senate, Democrat and Republican (and this is not always easy to do), chances of passing nonpartisan bills are very good, regardless of party affiliation.
(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)
Copyright 2012 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel