Serving in the Nebraska Legislature is stimulating, important work. State senators debate proposals that can have far-ranging effects on the state. Lawmakers defend values and principles important to them. Many Nebraskans who have served at the State Capitol have found the experience deeply rewarding.
Nebraskans deciding whether to run for the Legislature need to understand beforehand, however, how stressful and complicated the job can be. It’s not uncommon, for example, for newly elected state senators to find that the Legislature’s demands on their time well exceed their expectations. As a result, some have struggled to develop a successful balance between their legislative service and their job. Some with young families have been frustrated trying to achieve a suitable work-and-home balance.
Any Nebraskan considering a state legislative run should discuss the time-demand considerations thoroughly with their family and work colleagues. Recruitment for the Legislature by the political parties and activist groups is well underway for the 2020 elections, after all. Some 25 seats in the Nebraska Legislature are up for election next year — more than half the membership.
Here are some additional considerations, based on the experiences of current and prior state senators, that anyone considering a state legislative candidacy would benefit from understanding:
» Retail campaigning. As incumbent senators can attest, running for the Legislature involves lots of shoe leather — an incredible amount of door-to-door campaigning. Such campaigning is often key in earning victory for a candidate, especially in close races. There are many examples of candidates who stood a chance of winning but lost in part because they ignored the need for dedicated retail politicking.
» Be prepared for political ugliness. It’s hardly a secret that politics brings out terrible nastiness in many politically interested people. Candidates for the Legislature, regardless of party or philosophy, need to be prepared to endure being the target of brutal and often misleading campaign ads and mailers.
» Show dedication to the job. The Legislature’s effective operation depends on conscientious service by its members. State senators need to do their homework on bills. They need to participate in committee deliberations. They should use their speaking time during floor debate to analyze issues and advance the discussion. Past experience shows, unfortunately, that some legislators neglect such obligations. They focus solely on one or two issues or misuse floor debate by delivering self-serving political rants. Some fail to show up for committee hearings or floor debate, which puts extra burdens on their colleagues. Candidates for the Legislature need to understand the harm from such laziness and irresponsibility.
» Seek out capable mentors. The Legislature, like any institution, has its own procedures, habits and traditions. New members can benefit greatly by working with veteran senators who can explain the details and ingredients for effectiveness.
» Build trust with colleagues. The Nebraska Legislature by no means has been immune from the divisiveness and ill will that characterize so much political discussion in present-day society. This left-right polarization has become a significant problem at the State Capitol. No faction — right, left or moderate — commands a majority in the 49-member body, so success in getting legislation passed depends on support from outside a bill sponsor’s philosophical “tribe.” Candidates for the Legislature, regardless of party or philosophy, must understand the importance of building relations with the full range of colleagues in order to be effective.
» Help sustain the Legislature as an effective institution. Some state senators act like solo players, with too little regard for the Legislature’s procedures and traditions. Conscientious senators, in contrast, promote a constructive work atmosphere. They respect the committee process. They use floor debate appropriately. They defend the Legislature’s authority. Such habits are important for sustaining the Legislature as an effective institution amid the regular turnover in membership.