Guest Columns

THE WEBBCAST: WHO WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE IN THE LEGISLATURE?

Growing the next crop of leaders in Colorado

Is it just my imagination, or do things seem less rancorous around the Statehouse as we head into the home stretch? There’s still the partisan back and forth about redistricting, but the 2012 budget got passed, and that’s a significant step.

I’m wondering whether the leadership on both sides is settling into a mindset of problem-solving, rather than problem-creating. Perhaps the vibrations from the big Capitol building somewhere east are reaching all the way here, with those pulsating tones that repeat, “Go do your job.”

It’s always hard to know what really motivates someone seeking elected office at the statehouse level. Is it a personal issue, a business philosophy, or the sheer desire for notoriety and public attention? I believe some politicians still possess some of that “high school student council” gene that compels them to want to be recognized, so that “B-M-O-C” translates to “Big Man at the Capitol.”

How to convince young men and women that volunteering for public service can be a higher calling is a continuing challenge for the next generation of statehouse leaders.

That’s why I was interested in the comments made last month in The Statesman by Senator Nancy Spence, R-Centennial (Dist. 27) (“Nancy Spence, On Her Own”), about what it took for her to step up to run for office, and what it means to be voting for her convictions.

I’ll be honest in saying I know Nancy Spence personally, and tremendously admire her as a legislator. She is fair-minded, and has perfected the art of being partisan without being pissy, or constantly pissed-off. She describes herself as fiscally conservative, but I’d say she is practical and pragmatic.

I’m concerned that we can’t always find legislators who are able to walk that line, and apply common sense when it’s called for, rather than fall back into that political jargon about “working families” and “small ‘s’ and small ‘g’ government.”

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In past years, there’s often been a progression of political stepping stones, from an appointed position on a local board, or time on a special district board, to a county commission seat or a city council slot. Chambers and business development organizations created “leadership” programs to identify those young men and women who would be encouraged to think about expanding their value to the community. So I’ll ask the question right here, to Amy Sherman of the West Chamber, and John Brackney of the South Metro Chamber — “Who would you like to see in the Legislature?”

Now it appears that it’s more important to be a local party insider, or be the favorite son or daughter of a faction with an agenda, or just be blatantly open about representing the trial lawyers, say, or gun-toters, or abortion opponents.

The shrillness of political rhetoric clearly discourages quality volunteers from stepping forward, not because it’s a tough job, but because it brings so many degrees of hassle and personal discomfort. Hopefully, as Senator Spence noted, they won’t get “too discouraged or burned out.”

I know legislators who say they never read the news stories, or pay attention to the blogs, because, like professional athletes, they’ll get distressed and discouraged from the coverage and reviews. They don’t want their performance to suffer. Much better, they say, to plan Saturday morning coffees, or scan your e-mails, than read the snide remarks in the comments under a Denver Post story.

I anticipate that there’s a subculture of lobbyists, chamber and trade association directors and veteran political observers saying to young people, “Have you ever thought about what your next career move would be?” (Russell Baker called that “The Great Mentioner.” “So-and-so has been mentioned as a possible candidate for...”)

By now, I trust that such veteran legislators such as Nancy Spence, Shawn Mitchell, Jim Riesberg and Nancy Todd are all casting a keen eye on not only the best person to follow in their district footsteps, but in their legislative style. They’ll be assessing whether the protégé genuinely listens, or parrots the party line. They’ll be watching for signs of empathy, rather than arrogance. They may recommend when to simply shut up, instead of taking the bait in a debate. And certainly they’ll be thinking of ways to discuss a work-family balance, so they’re only putting in a few months at the Capitol, as true citizen-legislators, who still can thrive in a marriage and maintain their ability to earn a living.

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By this time next year, we’ll be marking the days as well-regarded lawmakers walk away from the Capitol. We’d all feel better if we knew we’d elected newcomers with a fresh perspective, who don’t have a lot of pre-conceived ideas, and who have our best interests in mind.

Pete Webb is a PR professional who is an astute observer at the Colorado Statehouse.