by Carrie Abner and Kelley Arnold
For first-time legislators, the to-do list can be quite long. Get to know new colleagues and build necessary alliances. Start memorizing Mason’s Manual. Introduce that piece of legislation promised on the campaign trail and work to build support for its passage.
Oh, and find out where to park at the capitol building.
There’s no shortage of things to learn—from the myriad practical necessities to the in-the-weeds political maneuvers—when you’re the new one on campus.
Over the next year, follow these four freshman legislators, one from each CSG region, in Capitol Ideas as they share what they are learning in their first year of service.
New York state Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou
At age 33, Taiwanese-born Yuh-Line Niou is the first new face to fill her district seat since 1976; the seat was previously held by former assembly speaker and long-time legislator, Sheldon Silver. Niou has served in state government since she was an intern in college; most recently she served as a staffer for New York Assemblyman Ron Kim. She hopes to use her years of legislative and policy experience to give the residents of her diverse New York City district a fresh, yet knowledgeable voice in the state house.
“I represent lower Manhattan, a district which encompasses a set of very diverse neighborhoods—from the Financial District and Battery Park City, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Chinatown,” said Niou. “My priorities in both the district and in Albany need to reflect the needs of my constituents, many of whom haven’t had access to government due to several barriers.”
Niou is leading the push in the Assembly to restore funding to senior centers that she believes provide critical social services. She also plans to lead the effort to revitalize and repair public housing developments damaged by Hurricane Sandy, while also working toward strengthening neighborhood resiliency and spurring community growth. Most importantly, she hopes to bring diversity to Albany.
South Carolina state Rep. Micah Caskey
Rep. Micah Caskey brings a range of experience to his new role at the South Carolina House of Representatives. Caskey spent several years serving his country as an active duty Marine, commanding units during combat tours in Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraq, and later in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. His time overseas helped inspire him to continue his service in a slightly different way back home.
“As a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, I spent a lot of time with local leaders in those countries that were working to help improve things for their citizens,” Caskey said. “I saw tribal elders and village leaders literally risk their lives to lift up their communities. As I returned to civilian life, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the challenges facing our state were not, in my view, being adequately addressed.”
Caskey also brings experience from his time as a management consultant in the Alaska energy industry and as a prosecuting attorney to his role at the South Carolina statehouse, where he was quickly tapped to lead the House Freshman Caucus. Among the first items on his agenda in his new role, he said, is to “find the bathroom,” both literally and metaphorically.
“While certainly an important achievement in the literal sense, I tell folks that my goal is to ‘find the bathroom’ as a way of saying that my top priority is to more fully understand the totality of the lawmaking process,” Caskey explained. “I believe that being an effective legislator requires an understanding and fluency of both the formal lawmaking process (e.g., knowing the rules) and the human landscape (i.e., understanding the people).”
Illinois state Rep. Theresa Mah
As Illinois’ first Asian-American lawmaker, Rep. Theresa Mah hopes that she will be able to give a voice to the predominately immigrant constituency that elected her. Mah is a second-generation Asian-American and credits both her family and the needs of her community as inspiration to run for the General Assembly.
“My parents were always very involved in the community,” said Mah. “They were immigrants who became citizens as soon as they were eligible. They were my first example of civic engagement. My grandfather was an immigrant to the United States during the period in which the Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect. That law and many others were made by legislatures that did not include any representation by the people who were affected.”
Prior to Mah’s election the House, the former professor and community organizer served two years as a senior policy adviser to Gov. Pat Quinn. Even though her work in the governor’s office gave her familiarity with the inner workings of Springfield, it did not take away from the sense of awe and purpose she felt the first time she stepped on the floor.
“Seeing my name on the vote board for the first time and seeing my name on the engraved name plates at my seat were unforgettable moments. I was part of a legislative body that shapes policy and has the ability to affect people’s lives. It’s an awesome privilege to be here and we have a tremendous responsibility to serve our constituents well.”
Arizona state Rep. Maria Syms
Being new on the statehouse scene didn’t stop Rep. Maria Syms from quickly rolling up her sleeves and tackling the issues most important to her. Within weeks of starting her term, Syms introduced a number of bills designed to help sexual assault victims, support veterans transitioning to the civilian workforce and protect small businesses. “I had already done a significant amount of work for these groups and it is very rewarding to now help enact laws that will have an impact,” said Syms, whose career as a prosecutor helped inspire her to seek elected state office.
The daughter of an Italian immigrant who grew up in New York, Syms has called the Grand Canyon State home for 15 years, where she is raising her three young children and has served her community, state and country as an assistant attorney general, assistant U.S. attorney and a local councilwoman.
Through her experience working with members of her community—as a prosecutor and as a local representative—she has learned the importance of remaining true to the view and values of the people she serves.
“Sitting in the House chamber and experiencing the formality of the process, it is impossible not to be moved by the great responsibility you have to the people you represent,” Syms said. “That is why I will always reach out to the community for feedback before taking a position on a particular issue.”