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Frosh perspective

‘Something like your first year of college,’ veterans say

By Leigh E. Rich

If you thought the transition from high school to college was challenging, try going from citizen-at-large to freshman legislator.

There’s little time between November’s Election Day and January’s swearing in, and there’s much to do.

After digging from the mind’s recesses what was once learned in Civics 101, you must instantaneously evolve into a master of the Colorado Constitution and the inner-workings of state government—including the powers of all three branches and the exact process by which a bill becomes a law.

Then there are constituents and lobbyists to contend with and bills that need to be requested not long after that Thanksgiving turkey has settled in the system.

And in the midst of all of this, there are those essential preparations to steel your system for the unavoidable “Capitol crud” and, alas, the “freshman 15.”

Other than adjusting to dorm food, the making of a legislator seems more arduous than coming of age.

That’s why Colorado’s newest lawmakers have been participating in a four-part freshman orientation that began this month and will continue in December and January.

And the Colorado freshmen will transition smoothly, current legislators say, because the Capitol’s legislative staff runs one “of the best orientations in the nation,” House Speaker Lola Spradley, R-Beulah, told the new lawmakers and their families at a luncheon last week. In fact, she added, the Colorado General Assembly has even been recognized several times for its orientation program.

Included in the itinerary are lectures and interactive workshops on staff services, security and safety procedures, legislators’ rights and responsibilities, the legislative process, bill drafting, and accessing legislative information. Last week, the new members of the 65th General Assembly also participated in mock committee sessions and mock floor sessions and, in December and January, they will focus on specific topic areas such as taxes, health care, criminal justice, transportation, education and ethics.

During last week’s “phase two,” there was even a pre-session program for spouses and companions that highlighted expectations and challenges of being a part of a public servant’s life.

New legislators also received advice from the veterans, as the outgoing leadership and the incoming leadership doled out words of wisdom at a luncheon at The Adam’s Mark Hotel last Monday.

Both sides, despite a switchover in leadership from Republican to Democrat in the coming session, spoke to being able to “disagree without being disagreeable,” to work with members from both sides of the aisle, and to master the rules and the ropes of such an important and vital role.

“You’re a part of a very important process,” said outgoing Speaker Spradley, who urged everyone to understand, respect and preserve the process. “It has a lot of traditions and a lot of respect. … Individual votes come and go, but the process should remain predictable.”

Like Spradley, outgoing Senate President John Andrews, R-Centennial, emphasized, “You’re entering the line of the relatively few Coloradans (who) built this state. … I encourage you to think of yourselves as trustees” of the General Assembly, the Capitol building and the state itself.

Holding up a maroon-bound copy of the Colorado Constitution, Andrews also advised the legislators to consult this text and the shelves of the Colorado Revised Statutes often or “you’re at risk of not keeping your trust. … There’s a lot here to master,” he admitted.

Andrews then read the preamble to the Colorado Constitution, which he said he had been reviewing recently: “We, the people of Colorado, with profound reverence for the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, in order to form a more independent and perfect government … do ordain and establish this constitution.”

Noting the absence of such a phrase in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Senate president took a moment to reiterate Colorado’s wording—“with profound reverence for the Supreme Ruler of the Universe”—and then paraphrased Matthew 10:29 about how “we better be praying that a sparrow can’t fall” to the ground apart from the will of the “Supreme Ruler.”

Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, the next Senate majority leader, diffused some of Andrews’ religious counsel about the Colorado Constitution before imparting his own advice: “I was afraid John Andrews was going to read all of it to us.”

But Gordon did point out that this luncheon would be the last time the new legislators would hear from two sets of leadership concurrently, and he took the time to thank the outgoing majority—though saying he never would have thought to do so if Rep. Alice Madden, D-Boulder, the new House majority leader, hadn’t just thanked them as well.

Echoing something Spradley had said—“Try to find a niche, because you can’t know everything … and really work on it”—Gordon told those assembled that it’s “impossible” to know the history and the details of every bill. Learn the bills in your area, he said, and then rely on each other’s expertise.

And if the new lawmakers needed proof that their lives will soon drastically change, Gordon admitted that his first thought as he descended the Adam’s Mark escalators to the below-ground ballroom was, “What are my chances my cell phone is going to work down here?”

Colorado’s soon-to-be first female president of the Senate, Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Golden, spent her few minutes emphasizing the fact that the families of the new legislators were in attendance.

“Take a good look at them, because over the next 120 days, you won’t see that much of them. … Everything in that building will distract you from everything you once were.”

In addition to the pleas for civility and working to “depoliticize the chamber,” as incoming House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, promised, the Democratic majority also reminded the newcomers not to take themselves too seriously, despite the somber task of “solving problems” and other challenges that lie ahead.

Reading his impromptu notes from a napkin, Romanoff said he always learns the most from the school groups that visit the Capitol. When a teacher recently explained to her fourth-graders that Romanoff is the minority leader, one student asked if that was an important job.

“The children were fairly unimpressed,” he conceded, before telling his new colleagues to always work toward solutions, to maximize the talent within the General Assembly, to never “forget who pays our salaries and who owns that building,” and to “govern in the fairest way possible.”

Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mark Hillman, R-Burlington, agreed with Romanoff’s depiction of the hard truth of being a legislator. Unlike one’s chances of becoming a Bronco or a movie star, Hillman said, “ordinary people like us get to do this job and people like us trust us” to do it.

And if one ever forgets that, “just take your name badge off and walk down the 16th Street mall and see if anybody recognizes you.”

But despite resounding promises of depoliticizing the process and working on a bipartisan basis, there was still some sourness hurled across the aisle by both parties.

Andrews admitted to having mixed feelings.

“I do salute my successor … but I can’t pretend to be enjoying it all,” he said and then characterized the day as “my own political wake. … It hurts too much to laugh and I’m too big to cry.”

After noting that incoming “President (Fitz-Gerald) is committed to depoliticizing this process” even though “it would be tempting, I suppose, to govern by revenge,” Romanoff took a shot at the Republicans’ redistricting attempt last year. Regarding district boundaries, the Democrats, he assured, have “no intention of changing them until the next census.”

But most of the veterans’ advice was positive and useful.

“They are bright—the people on the other side of the aisle,” noted Gordon, who added that, after a while in the Legislature, “this terrible thing happens to you: You realize that they have a point.”

Spradley—who is known for the phrase, “Love you, hate your bill”—put it this way: “Stick to the issue” and don’t take things personally.

And in between the “hundred one-minute conversations a day,” a few walks now and again to keep the pounds off, and taking Ester-C “religiously,” Rep. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, reminded the newcomers to listen and learn and “always reach for more than you think you can accomplish.”

“This really is the tip of the iceberg,” Madden said, delivering the sobering truth to Colorado’s freshman legislators.

But, she pledged, somewhere in “the recesses of your mind, you’ll remember orientation.”

Rich, L. E. (2004, November 26). Frosh perspective: ‘Something like your first year of college,’ veterans say. The Colorado Statesman.

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