When the state Legislature convenes in March, there will be 37 new members, with 31 out of 105 in the House and six of 35 in the Senate. The number of first-time lawmakers could be a momentary shock to the system due to ideological rigidity, giddy naiveté and a general lack of understanding of the processes.
Whether it’s their first day in the Legislature or their 600th, every legislator should ask themselves, “Why am I here?”
Lawmakers hold enormous power over the lives of their fellow citizens, lives that can be disrupted or enhanced by a single vote.
Every legislator was elected by a minority of the majority of the voters in their district, which means the majority of voters they represent didn’t want them, didn’t know who they were, or didn’t care.
Does a lawmaker have a duty to represent every citizen in their district or simply the ones who elected them? The correct answer should be that they come to Montgomery to act as agents for all the people in their district, but that is often not the case.
The worst public servant is one who only serves the interest of the few at the expense of the many.
Being an elected officeholder conveys special responsibilities and privileges but sadly doesn’t grant superior insight or wisdom, although some act as though it does. Lawmakers are rightfully shown deference and respect because of their office, but flattery and favors are often lavished commodities on Goat Hill. Temptations in the State House abound, as do greed and venality, and there is no lack of ignorance and arrogance masquerading as principles.
Harold Lasswell in 1938 defined politics as “who gets what, when and how.” Even today, this idea serves as an enduring theory of the political world in general. Basically, lawmakers, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and special interests come to Montgomery to decide how the resources of government are distributed, who is enriched and who is left behind. Lawmakers pick the winners and losers.
Ideally, the Legislature comes together to make collective choices and solve collective problems for the betterment of all the state’s citizens. But working for the greater good requires an awareness that individuals are best when aspiring to achieve goals bigger and more worthy than their own self-interests; that is a commitment not easily made or sustained.
Elevating educations, saving rural healthcare and expanding economic opportunities are or should be central to the legislative session. Still, the state should also address gaming, criminal justice reform and aiding women and families. The Legislature must show it can walk and chew gum at the same time and do it while showing wisdom and compassion.
What is not needed is more time wasted on endless angry populism or acting like mid-level managers at “Anti-woke R Us” The thousand people who listen to you prattle on about “wokeism” on talk radio may care, but the average Alabamian doesn’t. Government can, by its laws, promote virtue, but it can only enforce a specific brand of morals with a bloody club.
Many newly minted lawmakers come to Montgomery thinking they alone can change it, but usually, Montgomery changes them.
The most successful politicians are the ones who realize the job of governing in a game of inches played on a field where everything is possible and impossible at the same time. The art of legislating is determining what is possible at any particular moment.
Knowing why you are in Montgomery is the first step to knowing what you can accomplish there.