Connecting with Constituents

It seems our Idaho Congressional delegation was ducking some heat last week. I can’t blame them; who likes being called to task? But such is the duty of the public servant. At least I thought so; but it’s tough work. That’s why we call these elected officials “leaders”. Who you listen to and how you listen makes for a good leader. We the people should expect more from our public servants.

A few years back a group of soil conservation commissioners asked legislators in the North Idaho region to come to a lunch presentation to explain the work they did. I was familiar with their work; I’d met with my county conservation commissioners at least annually since being elected. They are elected officials too. I had studied their budget on JFAC and understood their governance and the problems some districts were having throughout the state. But I had encouraged Donna to set up this meeting since I had the impression many legislators didn’t know the work they did. She was the most active commissioner in that county. Her presentation was brief, the lunch modest and then the conversation started. Don, a North Idaho legislator was frank. He said he saw no appropriate role for government in this and did not support the idea of taxpayer money being wasted on these projects. Donna thanked him for his honest response and asked him if there were things he was working on to help Idaho in the coming legislative session. He responded that he would meet with his Republican Party central committee and get their thoughts before he started on any legislative work. I believe this is all the work some complacent legislators do; talking to like-minded party members. That’s not leadership.

It’s a lot of work to stay connected to 47,000 people, the population of the average legislative district. But public servants should do this work.

Some legislators write email newsletters, a decent attempt at one way communication. The Capitol legislative support staff facilitates this, but I always did this on my own dime. I’d send out an email newsletter weekly during the session to about 1500 recipients. I wanted more for the mailing list, but it’s amazing how many rural folks don’t do email. Some thanked me for the updates and the links to other articles. I saw some other legislators do this, but not many. And honestly, that’s only 3% of my constituents.

The Idaho State Senate gives each state senator a budget to go to meetings (about $1200/year) and to mail “End of Session” letters (also about $1500/year, so that means less than 3000 letters). I always sent these out  (though less than a third of senators do) and I went to as many meetings as I could. This funding is quite generous, I hope it is continued. It is not intended for campaigning. One Idaho Senator got in trouble when she sent her letter to Republicans in the new district she got redistricted into back in 2012 asking for their support. The line between constituent work and campaigning needs to be clear, though good constituent work should make campaigning easier.

I held town halls during the legislative session on a Saturday when I would return to the district. I’d hit both county seats and five or six of the towns in the counties. The attendance would range from 3-4 folks in Juliaetta and Kendrick to 40-50 in Moscow. I was always a little perplexed that most who attended were supporters. Rarely did folks show up to give me a hard time, though it did happen.  I welcomed it; I saw such as an opportunity to exchange ideas, listen, for them to persuade me, or for me to explain my positions. I didn’t think we should all be in agreement, but that seemed like what it often was. Too often we only spend time with those we agree with.

I served a split district. That means our legislative delegation (one senator, two representatives) had both Democrats and Republicans. Idaho has 35 legislative districts and after this last election there are now just three split districts (5, 26,29 ). In a district dominated by one party, outreach is probably not necessary to get reelected. One-party dominance fosters a disconnection between elected representatives and their constituents.  Why are we so segregated? Why does the map of red and blue show such bright differences between urban and rural?

Idaho has some problems to solve. Both sides need to be talking, but more, we should be listening and hearing each other. Don’t be afraid. Talk and listen to those you may disagree with. Who knows, maybe you’re a leader.

About ddxdx

A Family physician, former county coroner and former Idaho State Senator
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