For Wyoming’s lawmakers, the short legislative sessions are full of long days and myriad issues. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports that newly elected legislators have to learn a lot quickly, but they’re taking their knocks in stride.
IRINA ZHOROV: You ever see that movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? In it, a frenetic Jimmy Stewart is newly appointed as Senator of some unnamed western state after his predecessor dies. He’s clueless as to how but he wants to introduce and pass a bill for a boy’s camp…Thankfully, he has a helpful secretary, in the form of Jean Arthur…
JEAN ARTHUR: My Dear Senator, have you the faintest idea what it takes to get a bill passed?
JIMMY STEWART: No, no, you’re going to help me. What do we have to have, what books do we have to have?
ZHOROV: Stewart, as Mr. Smith, is both naïve and an unknowing pawn in a corrupt plan, but he’s also determined.
ARTHUR: A senator has a bill in mind, like you camp, right?
ARTHUR: Fine. Now what does he do? He has to sit down, first, write it, the why, when, where, and how, and everything else. Now that takes times.
STEWART: But this one is so simple…
ARTHUR: Oh I see, this one’s simple.
STEWART: Yeah, and with your help…!
ARTHUR: Oh yeah, simple and I’m helping so we knock it off in record breaking time of 3, 4 days.
STEWART: Oh, a day.
ARTHUR: A day?!
STEWART: Just tonight.
ARTHUR: Tonight. I know I seem to be complaining, Senator, but in all civilized countries there’s an institution called dinner.
ZHOROV: But while the plot is Hollywood, the learning curve on the job isn’t totally off-base.
For example, take Representative Nathan Winters, of Thermopolis, one of the freshman legislators in the Wyoming House of Representatives.
NATHAN WINTERS: Whenever you’re going to do something as important as build a new law into WY statue, it has to go through multiple processes before it actually becomes a law. And so I really didn’t understand all the steps it takes before a bill becomes law but now that I’m here and I’ve witnessed it and I’ve guided a few through that process myself I’m thankful for it.
ZHOROV: He did it all without Jean Arthur. Another newly elected Representative, Eric Barlow, of Gillette, is very much with him:
ERIC BARLOW: Vertical. The learning curve is vertical. And that can be interpreted as straight up or straight down. Meaning, on some issues you’re jumping off the cliff.
ZHOROV: For him, the issues were one challenge, and the process, one could say the politicking, was yet another.
BARLOW: The process can adjust how bills are considered or not considered. And that is so nuanced by how it’s managed in the committee and on the floor, etc., that it can be quite interesting. Whether you like it or not, it’s part of how this process works. For some people it may be questionable at times. But that was one of the things I didn’t understand coming here.
ZHOROV: Wyoming freshman lawmakers say the Capitol provides its own helpful secretaries to take on the new challenges…sort of. All first-time legislators go through a training session. Some say they look for further help from their classmates – other incoming freshmen – or seek out mentors.
Senator James Anderson, of Casper, is the only junior Senator this term. He looks to different people depending on the issue at hand.
JAMES ANDERSON: It’s by subject matter mostly and whoever those experts are. It seems like a lot of people have an opinion on a lot of subjects, but there’s only a few that are really experts on it that you can really rely on their opinion on the thing.
ZHOROV: Anderson says he’s surprised how hard it has been to be effective, and how stubborn some of his fellow legislators can be.
ANDERSON: I’ve never dealt with the intensity that people have about certain subjects, and it’s win or lose, there’s no compromise. I think the guys that are willing to work with the subject and work on it, they can get something done. But a guy with no compromise, he just loses.
ZHOROV: Representative Lynn Hutchings, from Cheyenne, says she lobbied for a couple of years so the learning curve isn’t as steep for her. Fellow legislators have been helpful when she did need assistance, but it’s been hard to be under public scrutiny. The backlash, she says, isn’t coming from her constituents. Comments she made in a committee meeting about same-sex civil unions sparked attention nation-wide, but she says some of the media coverage was inaccurate and unfair, as was what followed.
LYNN HUTCHINGS: That has been the thing that has frustrated me the most this whole time. I’ve tried to work hard, I’ve tried to study hard, I’ve tried to be true to my word and do a good job. But it seems almost for about a month I’ve been getting vicious emails, phone calls and letters about things I never said.
ZHOROV: But it’s not all strife at the Capitol. Representative Winters, for one, is beaming.
WINTERS: For instance, right now I’m wearing a camel hair sports coat. I didn’t realize that this is actually an old tradition they’ve had around here on Wednesday, which is kind of the day to get over the hump, they wear a camel hair sport coat. So a lot of that is just kind of fun.
ZHOROV: And anyway, it’s just the beginning, says Representative Barlow.
BARLOW: I am 32 days into my term as a legislator. It was an honor to be elected. It is very humbling to actually serve, and to begin to understand the complexity of the issues, the various and sincere interests that are on every issue and understand that you can generally disappoint just about everybody every day based on the issues that are before you.
ZHOROV: Senator Anderson says everyone should try it…which probably means he’s having a better experience than poor Mr. Smith, who faints before the movie ends.
For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.