What is it like to be a freshman legislator? A bit different than I imagined. It was an honor to be elected as the state representative for House District 37 last November. I recently finished my first legislative session, even though most of my career as a policy consultant and nonprofit lobbyist has been spent in and around the Georgia Capitol.
Being familiar with the building and the legislative process was helpful, but all that experience did not prepare me for what it was like to be in the same space as a legislator. I was now inside the historic and beautiful House Chamber sitting at one of the restored desks.
When newly elected legislators attended orientation, we were told more than once that members of the Georgia House of Representatives are a family. After coming off the campaign trail, I found this a little hard to believe, but it is largely true. Most of my colleagues from both sides of the aisle, Democrat and Republican, were friendly and helpful. Of course, we did not agree on all the issues but most were respectful. The majority of legislators on both sides of the aisle are good people trying to accomplish positive things for the people of Georgia.
Since seating assignments are not made until after session starts, the custom is for new legislators to sit during the first week in the seats of their predecessors. That put me on the third row, seated in-between Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones and Rep. Katie Dempsey. I have known and worked with Rep. Dempsey on issues, but it was a bit intimidating sitting next to the Speaker Pro Tem — she holds the second highest leadership position in the House. I found Speaker Pro Tem Jones to be kind and full of helpful suggestions and am grateful to both her and Rep. Dempsey for helping guide me through the ceremonies and protocols that first week.
It is difficult to convey the pace and intensity of the legislative session. There are so many bills on so many issues and it took time to settle into a routine. My past work focused on education, health care and other issues affecting women and children, but my committee assignments took me in a different direction. My favorite assignment was to the Natural Resources and Environment Committee. Exposed to new issues, I became deeply interested in the problem of coal ash and in shore protection. And as a member of the Governmental Affairs Committee, I was in the middle of the debate over voting issues and decisions about new voting machines for Georgia. Health care and education issues are still of great interest to me and important to the people of the district, and I continue to follow them closely.
It takes guts to stand in the well of the House of Representatives and address 179 other House members. My first speech was during what is called Morning Orders and was limited to three minutes. Morning orders are an opportunity for House members to speak briefly on a topic of their choice. My brief speech was on an environmental issue affecting Cobb County — the presence of coal ash at Plant McDonough. Speaking in the well is interesting — often it’s noisy and it’s clear that most of your colleagues are not really listening, even during debate over bills. When it gets quiet, you know you’ve got their attention.
All legislators get lots of email, letters and phone calls during the session, and that has continued, although at a slower pace. My main rule is to answer all phone calls and emails from people who live in the district and to meet with them in person if at all possible. It does not matter if I believe I disagree with their position. I think it’s important to keep an open mind and listen to both sides of issues.
A few weeks into the session, I felt more comfortable and realized how much I enjoy this new role. That’s a good thing considering all the hard work it took to get there. Being on the House floor and in the midst of debate over important issues is exciting. Hearing from and meeting with constituents is always an opportunity to learn and keeps me grounded. My election was by a slim margin — 177 votes — so I do not take my position for granted. I represent all the people in the district, not just those who voted for me. I look forward to continuing to meet and talk with people who live in and near House District 37 and hope everyone will feel comfortable reaching out to me.