Humility and accountability are two indispensable qualities that separate thoughtful, respected lawmakers from those prone to outrun their headlights in pursuit of the spotlight.
Humility boils down to knowing what you don’t know. Most everyone who runs for office does so with good intentions and motivated by ideas to make their community, state or country better.
A lawmaker with humility accepts that, beyond one’s own life experience, he or she has a limited knowledge of how the rest of the world works. For example, until I heard a restaurant owner explain it, I did not realize that operating at 25% or 50% capacity could actually be worse for their cash flow than remaining closed.
Equally crucial is accountability – not just to voters every few years – but to trusted people whom you consult for advice and who know they can speak candidly even when they tell you something you don’t want to hear. One of my most valued advisors was my predecessor, Sen. Jim Rizzuto, a Democrat respected by both parties.
A trusted circle of friends and advisors includes people who will tell you if it seems you’ve become so self-important that nobody can “talk sense” to you. Such advisors aren’t merely cheerleaders; they must include trusted people across the political spectrum and from older and younger generations.
These observations are particularly relevant to current leadership at our State Capitol — and not merely because we hail from different parties. Colorado has a long history of lawmakers and stakeholders working together to enact goals of the legislative majority in a practical manner that also accommodates those being burdened by a new law.
For example, businesses have usually accepted expanding anti-discrimination employment law to new protected groups so long as a disgruntled employee must first submit their complaint to the Colorado Civil Rights Division which determines whether the claim is meritorious. However, a bill introduced this year would allow complaints to bypass that process and immediately file a lawsuit.
Lawmakers also must realize that passing a law isn’t like waving a magic wand. Change doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Without the experience of operating a business that, to survive, must produce quality goods and services at an affordable price, legislators can be deceived into believing that profit is a given.
In reality, profit is a cost. A business that insists on larger profit margins will soon lose market share to competitors who are satisfied with smaller profit margins – unless government has erected so many barriers to competition (e.g., higher labor costs, litigation risks, excessive bureaucracy) that innovative competitors cannot afford to start up.
Last year as the legislature made spending reductions to balance its budget, Sen. Faith Winter (D-Westminster) famously remarked “that the private sector is not the only sector that employs people.” True, but public-sector jobs are made possible by taxes generated by the private sector. Like the law of gravity, laws of economics apply regardless of whether legislators understand them.
I served my entire tenure in the legislature as an unmarried 30-something with limited life experience. When elected, I was the youngest senator by six years, but I was surrounded by lawmakers in their 50s, 60s and 70s and who didn’t hesitate to tell me what I didn’t know.
By contrast, the median age of leadership among today’s state Senate majority is 42. Of 13 senators who are either elected to leadership or serve as committee chairs, 10 are in their 30s and 40s. House leadership is only slightly more seasoned. Among both groups, precious few have business experience signing the frontside of a paycheck.
This isn’t to ridicule youth or ambition. Not long ago, that was me, so I appreciate those who aspire to leadership. But twenty years later with a family and broader experience, empathy and understanding would compel me to work harder to accommodate practical concerns of those who might object to my legislative goals.
In the past, what kept ambitious young legislators from running roughshod over political opponents were older legislators bold enough to say, “We may do what you want but not the way you want.” Those voices of experience established guardrails by declaring, “We (our party) will not do that to citizens of Colorado.”
Such guardrails are missing in today’s legislature, but lawmakers can benefit from seeking out advisors with experience they themselves lack.