What makes a good leader? Former lawmakers offer advice

Posted: Sunday, August 13, 2000

This fall voters will send a new crop of legislators to Juneau. But will they accomplish what they are sent there to do?

The Peninsula Clarion asked three former Kenai Peninsula legislators for pointers on what makes lawmakers effective.

"I think the biggest quality a legislator has to have to be effective is to understand both sides of the issues," said Don Gilman. "Unless you can do that, you can never really resolve problems."

Gilman served in the Senate from 1981-84 and a total of 14 years as mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

Single-issue candidates are the ones who have the most trouble coping. People with a broader viewpoint and background will be more successful, he said.

When people become en-trenched in positions and refuse to compromise, gridlock ensues. Issues like subsistence and the future of the Alaska Permanent Fund need statesmen who will respect and understand other viewpoints, he warned.

"Otherwise it's going to sit there until someone blinks," he said.

Margaret Branson of Seward served two years in Juneau in 1979-80 and keeps track of state politics. She agreed with Gilman.

"The citizens of the state have an obligation to elect good legislators. The voters have a responsibility to send down people who are thoughtful and have a broader view."

Lawmakers should take a statewide view, rather than working only for voters in their own district, she said.

People should be wary of single-issue campaigns, she said. Single-issue candidates, if elected, tend to accomplish little.

"They are all over, and they are impossible to talk to," she warned.

Branson advised elected officials to speak honestly, even when it is painful.

"I think they need to speak as close to the truth as possible," she said. "I think they tend not to level with their constituents."

Representatives can be more effective if they respect people enough to disagree with them sometimes, she said.

Legislators may know more about a bill or its consequences than a constituent.

"They have an obligation to use that knowledge," she said.

Mike Navarre of Kenai served in the House of Representatives from 1985 to 1996. He sees sitting in the Legislature as a tremendous responsibility.

"I think the biggest thing you need to know is that if you are elected, you are charged with making the decision. You are it."

Legislators often face dilemmas about how to vote because they receive a huge amount of information that may give them a different impression than the public at large has, he said.

"Good public policy decisions are not always popular. And popular decisions are not always good policy," he warned.

Gilman agreed.

An effective lawmaker also must be his or her own person, do what is right and operate above board -- regardless of ideology, he said.

Many people just view lawmakers in terms of how much money they deliver to a district. At the same time voters speak for trimming government, they reward big spenders, he said.

"Our legislators are put in a real tough position," Gilman said.

They need to focus on realistically solving problems, and they need to govern while they are in office, rather than campaigning nonstop for the next election.

Gilman cited fiscal problems as an example.

"They cannot pledge 'no new taxes,' cut spending and preserve the permanent fund. They cannot do it.

"There has to be a longer-term vision. There is going to be a day when people are going to have to bite the bullet and make decisions that will cost them the elections.

"We don't have a money problem, we have a priorities problem."

Navarre agreed that short-term politics interferes with long-term governance.

He sees a role for party caucuses, but thinks they are too prominent. If lawmakers voted what they thought best, rather than spinning messages, stacking votes and letting party politics dictate reactions, results could differ.

Legislators as a group would be more effective if they could lay aside partisan politics and come together as Alaskans once the session begins, he said.

"That was always a big frustration for me," Navarre said.

The former lawmakers said that people skills and teamwork are vital tools.

At home, a lawmaker has to listen to constituents to serve the public; in Juneau, a lawmaker has to work with 60 diverse colleagues and needs to arrange partnerships to cover the workload, Navarre said.

"You have to be able to identify who you can work with and who you trust," he said.

Gilman said some people go to Juneau very naive, and some never do figure out how the system works.

One problem is getting swamped in the volume of information tossed at legislators.

So many bills are proposed, Branson said.

"You have to become some sort of an expert, or at least well-informed on several topics," she said.

Navarre agreed.

"You have got to digest a lot of information, so you have to spend a lot of time on the job," he said. "It is a tremendous education."

All three advised newcomers to get the best possible assistants to cope -- meaning experienced and talented aides.

"The staff people are critical. You have to rely on them," Navarre said.

All three also warned against the pitfalls of supporting bills without reading the fine print.

"Be very cautious about committing to anything. Listen to the debate," Navarre said.

Branson said representatives need to be prepared to serve as ombudsmen for their constituents as well.

Gilman said that before taking office a person should know what their district is like and what constituents expect. Living in Juneau has its own pitfalls outside of the work, he added. Housing is a problem, and the situation can be hard on families.

The personal stresses and constant criticism can take a toll on effectiveness.

"It is absolutely no picnic," he warned.

Navarre offered a word of encouragement for those taking the big step to Juneau.

"If you work hard, you'll do fine," he said.

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