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Married to the job

What to expect when your spouse is legislating

By Leigh E. Rich

If as the saying goes, Christmas came early for the Colorado legislators who won their November campaigns, then the New Year is already delivering new challenges—at least for those married to the members of the 65th General Assembly.

“Your lives are not private anymore,” Secretary of the Senate Mona Heustis told a group of new legislator spouses last week during the second phase of a four-part freshman orientation program that continues in December and January.

Heustis moderated a panel discussion at the Capitol on expectations and challenges that face spouses and companions, while Colorado’s newly elected lawmakers endured orientations of their own.

The hour-long lecture may well have been called “what to expect when your spouse is legislating,” as wives Diana Wiens, Jean White and Brenda Weissmann answered questions about what it’s like being married to a legislator who is often married to the job.

Though all three agreed with Heustis’ description that “the spouse-companion can sometimes take a second fiddle role,” they did have kind words to say about their husbands and the governing process.

Wiens, who is married to current Rep. and now Sen.-elect Tom Wiens, R-Castle Rock, encouraged the handful of spouses in attendance to visit their other halves at the Capitol in the coming session. This is especially beneficial to children, both Wiens and Heustis stated, because it allows them to witness firsthand the importance of the work legislator parents do as well as the respect they garner because of it.

“Visit them at their office. It’s a whole new world. … It’s our system at work,” Wiens said, reiterating that “the system really does work.”

When Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, was sworn into office four years ago, Jean White took this kind of advice one step further. Ever since her husband took over as the representative from HD 57, White has worked as his legislative aide—originally commuting back and forth between Winter Park and Denver three days a week so she could be home with their daughter, then a junior in high school.

“For me, I made a very serious commitment,” White said, explaining this role as a “natural progression,” since she and Al had worked side-by-side in business for more than two decades. “It’s a great opportunity to become involved, if it’s something you can work in your schedule.”

Such an active role does not have to be an option for everyone, Weissmann told her new counterparts, some of whom began to look a little like deer in the headlights.

“Get as involved as you like,” said Weissmann, who is married to Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville.

Being rather shy, the mother of two young children and a graduate student, Weissmann reminded the spouses to choose “your level of involvement.”

But regardless of whether they jump into the fray like White, stay out of the spotlight like Weissmann, or find some middle ground like Wiens, the panel of spouses underscored the undeniable truth that being married to a legislator, in White’s words, “does kind of turn your whole life upside down.”

So what’s a spouse to do, what with the hours a legislator must spend in the office, the interminable phone calls, the watchful eyes of the press, the heaps of mail and the constant stream of invitations?

Take cues from your spouse on how involved to be, the panel advised, but also take a lead in carving out family time.

Wiens, who called the legislative lifestyle “a juggling act,” suggests arranging time away from constituents and state business. “This is family time, put it on (the) schedule.”

This is something Terry Todd, husband of Rep.-elect Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, won’t have trouble implementing. He and his wife, he told the group, already coordinate Palm Pilots once a week.

While technology may be helpful, it also can be readily intrusive. Referring to her husband’s cell phone, White explained, “There are times I say, ‘Shut it off.’ … Sometimes you have to be a little firm.”

But finding time for a home life isn’t always easy. Weissmann’s husband is “home Thursday nights and Sunday. … Paul has two other jobs”—as the bartender and manager of Louisville’s Blue Parrot restaurant and as a substitute teacher with Denver Public Schools.

In addition to managing hectic schedules, legislative families also are inundated with mail, phone calls and invitations, the panel cautioned.

Because the volume of mail increases “incredibly” once elected to office, White and Wiens say they both separate their husbands’ mail into accessible piles.

“Boy, you’re nice,” Weissmann joked, saying with a smile that she was glad her husband wasn’t sitting in on the discussion. To her credit, Weissmann was pregnant with their second daughter, Gianna, during most of the previous session.

As for the numerous invitations legislators receive, Wiens advised, “You just need to be flexible,” as sometimes there are last-minute dinners and other events. As a mother of four, however, she noted that she “would rather see one of us at (their children’s) volleyball game … to have at least one of us there.”

But “he is the one that has been elected to office,” she added, so “other times, (constituents) don’t want to see you, they just want to see their elected official.”

“Usually your spouse will know which events are more important,” White said, noting that there can be several receptions to attend in the same evening. “There are some key events. … Again, it’s whatever works for you.”

And rest assured, new legislative spouses, it’s not quite the same as being on the campaign trail.

“On the campaign, yes, it’s really important to be with your spouse,” Wiens said, answering a question from Mary Jean Gallegos, wife of Rep.-elect Rafael Gallegos, D-Antonito. “When you’re here at the Capitol … it’s a different set of people and I think the priorities are different.”

As for the phone calls, a separate phone line or a separate cell phone just for legislative business helps, White and Wiens say, particularly if there are still children at home who might monopolize phone time or who might intercept calls from upset constituents or the press.

Wiens, who deemed the life of a legislative spouse like “having a fifth child,” explained to the group that “phone calls from constituents … seem to come at anytime.”

And be forewarned—constituents might stop you even while you shop.

“It takes me so much longer to go to the grocery store than ever before,” said White, who explained that she usually listens but then encourages the individual to send the matter in a letter to her husband. “They feel better because I’ve listened, (but) I’ve put the responsibilities back on them. … Nine times out of 10, you never hear about it again.”

But it’s not just comments and complaints from constituents that spouses must field. It’s also a good idea, the panel said, to know what’s going on at the Capitol and where the legislators are in the deadline-oriented process.

For those who may not be working as legislative aides, White—who now describes herself as “a real political junkie”—advised listening to the floor proceedings via the Internet.

Wiens, who handed out copies of the deadline schedule for the coming session, agreed that “it’s good to know what your spouse is working on,” even if you don’t know the nuts and bolts. “You can choose to do so, but you don’t have to.”

And according to Weissmann, her husband will tell her which way he’s going to vote on certain issues, so she can explain “why Paul voted this way or this is Paul’s opinion on this. … Just be aware … because you will get asked about it.”

On the other hand, White laughed, “It’s not like you have to be home reading bills—unless you’re having a problem sleeping.”

As for last words of wisdom as the new legislators and their companions go forward unto the breach, White advised being sensitive to what’s on the legislators’ plates and realize that there’s “something like 40 opportunities for a bill to die. … Bills have a lot of opportunity to fail … and that is why the process works.”

Wiens said that it is good to remember that, though “it is your spouse or significant other that was elected … you as a spouse and your family are expected to hold a higher level of accountability. … Don’t speed, don’t do silly things, because (you) are sometimes in the spotlight as well.”

And speaking from recent experience, Weissmann simply told the group, “Don’t have a baby in March or April.

Rich, L. E. (2004, November 26). Married to the job: What to expect when your spouse is legislating. The Colorado Statesman.

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