Life After Election
In November, 2016, I was unexpectedly elected as the Tennessee State Representative in District 96 (Cordova, Germantown). This article will give some insight into some of the aspects of learning to be a legislator outside of just passing bills. I hope it will help others to understand some of the behind the scenes things that aid in becoming a successful office holder.
Although I had some insight into my role as a legislator, there have been constant surprises. This should be predictable but immediately after my election, I gained many new “friends.” Those who I had never met were calling me to congratulate and wanting to have lunch. Those whom I had left numerous messages with no callback, all of a sudden were answering on the first ring!
Also, checks started coming in, not big ones but some from several interests who gave as a form of introduction since many of them had no idea if I would support their bills. Then there was the relationship building, first within my own Party and then the more important job of working with the other Party. This requires an adjustment after a hard campaign against them. As I met each Republican legislator, I would make an evaluation of what’s important to that member, what issues on which we can work together, and establish other areas of common ground.
In orientation, we were advised to attend the receptions. During most of a legislative year, different groups, including industry groups, advocacy groups, and some administrative departments have legislative receptions. They are obligated to invite all legislators and are normally at locations within walking distance of our offices. It’s a way to meet and learn from the hosts but, even more important, it give opportunities to get to know your fellow legislators in a more personal setting which actually can improve working relationships, often better than during the hustle of conducting legislative business.
In addition to legislative business, we spend a lot of time on constituent services. We greet those occasional visitors from 200 miles away, I receive a lot of emails from constituents, usually to ask me to vote for or against a specific bill. I do try to answer each email sent. Fortunately I agree with most of the emails I receive which I like think is a sign that my views are aligned with my constituents. Many are requests for services several times a year. It can vary from a helping expedite unemployment insurance to recommending someone for a job to a local problem. Most of them I can solve or refer to another official.
I do other activities for my district including sending congratulations to all graduating seniors of district high schools, have resolutions drawn up for noteworthy people in the district, and of course, I have town hall meetings in the district. I’ve had attendance from 5 to 65 constituents to attend town hall meetings but I always enjoy them. Typically I’ll cover some of things the legislature has done recently, include some of my thoughts, and then spend the majority of the time in a question and answer session. So far, things have gone well, even when we disagree on issues.
District 96 is a middle class district with not a lot of either poverty or wealth. There are many home owners associations and neighborhood associations. I try to attend their annual meetings as much as possible. Sometimes they have questions regarding state actions, sometimes local, sometimes just concerning resident problems but they always seem to appreciate an elected official coming by to show interest in their neighborhood.
When I think of challenges affecting my district this year, I have to divide them into district specific issues and statewide issues. I’ll be in touch with the Tennessee Department of Transportation regularly about Germantown Parkway, the main artery through my district and a State road. I keep an eye on any state action that can affect seemingly local issues. I also advocate healthcare expansion and availability for my constituents and their families outside the district who may have no coverage or their coverage is threatened, I supported legislation for public schools due to the large number of students in my district, and supported criminal justice reform after talking to several ex-offenders in my district who want a chance to be productive citizens.
I try to constantly educate and my constituents in the role of state government and its impact on regular citizens. I then work to encourage them to become more involved in paying attention to state issues and acting upon them in the ways they feel the most comfortable.
In representing a constituency, an elected official is both a follower and a leader. You should understand both the different segments of a district and the overall mindset. Although you may understand more global issues, your constituents may be more interested in the potholes on their street or the condition of the neighborhood school. Remember the often quoted phrase that “all politics is local.” This dichotomy is necessary to know and to overcome in becoming a successful representative of people. I hope this article will be helpful for those in office or aspiring to run for elected office.
Written by Dwayne Thompson (Tennessee House of Representatives, District 96)