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Mr. Smith goes to Augusta.

Not too long ago I received a terse letter from someone who was clearly upset with my endorsement of a proposed health care facility to be located just outside my legislative district in Bangor, Maine.

The writer, whose name I recognized from my weekly mailing list, berated me for being "ignorant on the issue" and "a captive of the hospital industry." Furthermore, he suggested my service in government had been a betrayal of the public trust. In closing, the letter summed up my eight-year legislative career by stating that I had done "nothing whatsoever for the people of Maine."

But in spite of his hostility toward me and my politics, the writer left me with one final message indicative of the neighbor-like relationship we Maine politicians tend to have with out constituents: "P.S. My parents send their regards."

I grew up interested in journalism and politics, starting out as a reporter before making an eight-year foray into state politics. Having learned a lot about how legislators think and operate, I've headed back to the other side of the notebook.

Trading places for such a lengthy period has given me a different perspective on both journalism and public service. When I was first sent to cover the Maine legislature for Maine Public Broadcasting in 1977, I was only 22 years old and just finishing a B.A. in journalism - relatively naive, with no previous exposure to the political system. I went believing that policy-making was simply fair-minded men and women contemplating what would be in the public's best interest. Whichever side got the most votes on an issue won; it seemed so simple.

I knew nothing then about the influence of lobbyists, constituents, party leaders, and purse strings. Nobody ever sat me down to tell me the political facts of life - that politics never has, and never will, function the way we're led to believe in school.

Even if I had been better prepared for the job, there are certain aspects of the political process that cannot be identified or experienced from the press gallery. Now that I've been on the inside, I'm in a better position to understand what's going on, and to translate it for others. If more reporters would take this approach to their professional development, they'd be doing themselves - and their audiences - a big favor.

Because of the small size of legislative districts in states like Maine (7,500 residents per House district; 33,000 per Senate district), the legislators know many of their constituents personally, as friends, neighbors, and relatives. Yet when it comes to politics, common bloodlines and property lines are usually obscured, and elected officials take a lot of hostile fire. Most office-holders and seekers accept this adversarial flavor of the job as the cost of the attention, gratitude, and influence public service promises.

But it's undeniable that state legislators often find themselves dealing with voter harassment. Not long ago, a man appeared on my doorstep at 2:30 a.m. wanting to discuss a dispute he was having with a state agency. "The Nightstalker," as I now call him, made no apologies for infringing on my bedtime. Instead, he proceeded to outline - in great detail - the problems he was having.

Irritated by this visit but conscious of the man's status as a potential voter, I asked what motivated him to choose to come at such odd hour. He indignantly replied that he was concerned that I might be too busy to meet him during the day.

Listening to and assisting constituents with bureaucratic hassles is a critical part of the job. Because of the potential for reward at election time, many legislators choose to focus their attention on this listening-post role. As a result, helping constituents obtain driver's licenses and performing other forms of red-tape cutting often takes undue priority over policy-making responsibilities.

From a political perspective, this makes sense. After all, people vote; law books don't. But I was surprised to learn that this pressure to give good service causes many members - about 20 percent of the ones I know - to leave the lawmaking to the party leaders and other legislators. Partly because of this, some Maine representatives never bother to read the bills. Outside of their own committee workload (heavy, for some, hardly worth noting for others), the extent of their contribution to the legislative process consists of simply ratifying the decisions of others.

This delegation of authority - present to some extent in every state - is something few politicians talk about or even acknowledge to themselves. Sometimes party leaders and their staff assistants rebrief individual members on why those members voted for a bill. This refresher course can take place weeks, days, or even just hours after the vote.

In Maine and most other states, legislative leaders - especially the presiding officers of the Senate and House - formulate policy, and control all spending, personnel decisions, and the fate of most bills. While in some instances laws and legislative rules ascribe these powers, much of this control is inherent in the leadership positions themselves. Once members are elected to leadership positions, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge them (unless, as in the Wright case, there are strong, outside considerations); the influence leader has over committee assignments, passage of bills, legislative travel, and other perks is usually sufficient to award off any attempted revolts.

But political clout does not rest solely with the officeholders. As soon as I entered politics, I saw the enormous influence lobbyist have. At bottom, a lobbyist's power comes from the ability to provide information on issues, to mobilize clients and members in support of or opposition to a bill (or individual), and to steer campaign resources towards particular parties and candidates. Lobbyists know what stirs the politician and the process, and they play mixmaster.

The successful lobbyists are well aware of a legislator's need to feel productive, and of a party leader's responsibility to help, caucus members fulfill this need. In recognition of this, they cultivate professional and personal relationships with legislators. Upon my election as assistant majority leader of the Maine House, many lobbyists made hurried attempts to befriend me. Their fondness for me seemed even greater two years later, when I was elected majority leader.

One of my earliest encounters with lobbyists in my role as a party leader reflected the discomfort I felt with some them. Just after I was first elected, a representative of a number of business interests came to my office, doling out perfunctory praise and pledging his services as a resource. After completing his warm-ups, he laid out his clients' legislative agenda for the year, not requesting my support but presuming I would provide it.

I was offended. I responded with a condemnation of special interests that could have been lifted right out of The Official Common Cause Attack Manual. After hearing me out for a minute or so, the lobbyist finally lost his composure and attempted to set me straight.

Not only was I ignorant about the process, he said, but his clients had contributed substantially to Democratic candidates during the recent election. He claimed that with their help, the Democrats had been able to maintain control of the House. He and they deserved more respect than I was showing.

The lobbyist's response wasn't totally unreasonable. After all, he was only attempting to exercise his right to influence a politician's vote. But I've never felt comfortable with the way politicians remain dependent on lobbyists to fund campaign efforts. That's basically why I threw him out of my office.

But lobbyists and their clients do indeed play a role in legislative elections. Both Democrats and Republicans in Maine regularly put the squeeze on special interests for campaign financing. Some, like the environmental lobby, resist. Most, however, go along with the milking.

Spit shines and sell-outs

At a recent national legislative conference in Reno, a small group of us were sitting poolside after the day's session, swapping stories. One veteran legislator mentioned that he'd spent a fair amount of time in the attractive home of a prominent Maine lobbyist. The legislator, teased in the past for his hero-worship of this highly successful lobbyist, was asked what in the world he was doing there.

He was, he explained, watching television and shining the lobbyist's shoes.

Lobbyists know what they're doing. No matter how much one might claim that contributions, friendships, and favors are irrelevant, it's intellectually dishonest to argue that they play no role in the way one evaluates - consciously or subconsciously - the merits of a proposal. This psychological impact may escape some who receive - but never those who give.

But sometimes this approach can backfire. During my 1986 campaign, I received a sizable unsolicited campaign contribution from an association of oil dealers. The lobbyist who hand-delivered it to me explained that, although I had not voted with his organization once during the six years I had been in the legislature, its members wanted me to have the contribution "because of your willingness to listen."

I accepted the check. But from that point on, I was so fearful of being accused by others of "selling out" that I never supported the oil lobby's positions.
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Title Annotation:a young journalist gets a first-hand political education
Author:Diamond, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1989
Words:1533
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