Jerry Kopel

"We'll be close as pages in a book, Lover and I"

Dorothy Fields

Legislators ARE close as pages in a book.

You are together for four months during the legislative session, and will probably see each other more than you see your families. The only true comparison I had when sworn in for the first term was my Army Engineer barracks during basic training at Ft. Belvoir, VA.

Legislators are not just together during the day. For many, there are events almost every night, usually financed by a lobby group that provides food, a time to communicate with constituents, and possible financial sources for your next campaign.

Closeness at the legislature or an army boot camp doesn't mean friendship, although friendships are frequent. Closeness means being unable to hide a true personality or actual 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.

That makes it important for new legislators, or even legislators who return after an absence, to carefully prepare for their first debate or extended remarks at the podium.

Don't misconstrue that comment. It's important to be involved early, but it's also necessary to do well. That means choose your subject, understand what the bill does, and have something to say that contributes to the debate. Just saying "I like (or don't like) the bill" is worthless.

The legislature has often been compared, accurately, to a small town. Everyone knows everyone else's "business" at work or at play in this close environment. And if you don't know the latest, someone 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. About one legislator, another would whisper in my ear "She (or he) has the intelligence of a blade of grass."

A few married legislators have been known to sleep with someone other than their spouse. It could be another legislator or a person with interest in "capitol doings" standing in the hallways. You may get away with it, but everyone at the Capitol knows your "secret".

The press is ready to pounce on any moral failures, if the failures become public. Former Denver Post columnist Chuck Green succinctly pointed out "if you don't want to read about it in the newspapers tomorrow morning, then don't do it."

In the House, full attendance by members at committee meetings is normal, and will probably be necessary in the Senate where there is only a one vote margin. Of course, a legislator needs to leave the room to present bills before other committees.

New legislators will notice one territorial idiosyncrasy that may or may not be based on closeness. During the first few meetings of a House committee, you will find legislators trying out different seats. Soon, a certain seat seems to belong to one legislator. If you diagram a seating arrangement in early February, you will often find it is still accurate in May.

When legislative friendships occur, do they affect bills? Of course they do, especially when it's a close call on a non-partisan issue. That's something every astute lobbyist knows when he or she decides whom to ask to carry a bill.

Legislative friendships are like other friendships. Someone has to take the first step. Thirty years ago (yes, I'm that ancient) I began to assist some new Democratic legislators. I would use "flash cards" displaying photos of all other legislators. New members stayed in the room until they knew every other legislator by sight and name, and knew something of each legislator's background.

I'm told the Colorado Press Association no longer provides free copies of its legislative directory to legislators. But get a copy of the prior Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post Election Guide issues. Cut out pictures and texts for legislators you don't know. Tape each picture and text on a separate card and learn the face and background information.

The election campaign is over, but you need the same political astuteness with which you "broke the ice" at neighborhood association meetings in order to corral election votes.

In an atmosphere where closeness is unavoidable, where friendships are important, and where most legislation is NOT partisan, success may well depend on early impressions and on your ability to make friends on both sides of the aisle.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House, between 1965 to January, 1993. From 1958-61, he drafted bills as as assistant attorney general assigned to the legislature. In 1993-94, Speaker Chuck Berry appointed him as an unpaid advisor to the House, with office space. If a new legislator has questions, former Rep. Kopel is in the phone book.)

Next week: How to get a bill passed.

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