Some Lawmakers Search for Common Ground
By Jennifer Ginn, CSG Associate Editor
It can sometimes be hard to find common ground in the heat of a legislative session.
Finding common ground with someone from another political party often can be even more elusive. But some legislators have found a way to work across the aisle.
Working on Prison Reform in Texas
When Texas Rep. Jerry Madden, a Republican, was appointed chair of the Corrections Committee in 2005, the speaker of the house gave him one instruction: “The speaker told me my chore was not to build new prisons, because they cost too much,” Madden said.
Madden didn’t have experience in criminal justice, so he started asking around about who he should talk to. Everyone told him Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat and chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee since 1993, was the expert.
“I wandered across the hall one day and I sat there for probably about two hours,” Madden said. “We just hit it off perfectly. (It was) ‘OK, I agree with most of what you’re saying’ and he agreed with most of what I was saying.”
The pair immediately became partners, Whitmire said.
“When we’d call in an agency or a department head, we’d be together and impress on them to do a better job,” Whitmire said. “He and I just started singing out of the same hymnbook. We weren’t singing the same song, but we had the same hymnbook.”
Their partnership has done a lot for criminal justice in the Lone Star State. Instead of building three new prisons at a total cost of $500 million, they convinced the legislature and the governor to spend less than half that amount to create 6,000 new treatment beds. The state also modified its parole system and invested in diversionary programs.
So instead of having an anticipated almost 18,000 new prisoners, policymakers actually shut down a prison last September.
“Right now, our criminal justice system (is) one of the largest in the country … and we get pretty darn good reviews for not only being tough, but being smart,” Whitmire said.
“I don’t think it matters which side you’re on when the net effect is, it’s working,” Madden said.
Election Forced Close Work
The 2010 election led to an even 30-30 split in the Oregon House of Representatives.
The House has operated with two co-speakers—Republican Rep. Bruce Hanna and Democrat Rep. Arnie Roblan. Every committee in the House also has co-chairs.
Although setting up the power-sharing agreement was heated at times, Roblan said it worked out well for the legislature and the state.
“I think for the most part, when you really get down to having those (tough) conversations with people, both sides want the same thing,” Roblan said. “How you go about getting there is sometimes very different.”
Hanna and Roblan said they continually stressed the importance of being polite and professional.
“We said that over and over again,” Hanna said. “We’re not going to agree on all things from a philosophical standpoint, but using these two markers, put yourself in a room and say, ‘Let’s not leave until we can get some incremental movement in a positive direction that your constituency can look at and cheer without calling each other bad names.’”
Hanna and Roblan said it took time for them to develop a mutual trust. Both said they believe this experience has changed the way they, and other legislators, do their jobs.
“They’ve seen what it takes to work together and for the rest of their career, they’ll be better legislators, as we will in leadership,” Hanna said.
“I also hope whoever gets in the majority … learns from this,” Roblan said. “How you treat people is as important as what the outcomes are. If people feel they have a voice, they’re more involved in getting into the solution-making process. … What we showed people is when there is a will, you can do it.”
Bipartisanship Can Have Consequences
California Sen. Sam Blakeslee, a Republican, has a history of working across the aisle in the legislature. He has had more Democrats than Republicans co-author his legislation and has even worked with Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer to testify before Congress about the need for more intense seismic studies around nuclear power plants.
A geophysicist by training, Blakeslee came to the legislature in 2004 with a different view of politics.
“For me, the goal has always been to cross those party lines to produce a desired outcome, not simply to make statements,” Blakeslee said. “I think the goal is to create a block of like-minded people on particular issues as they arise and forge a compromise on those issues.”
It hasn’t always been easy. Blakeslee said he was one of the first people in California to refuse to sign Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge to oppose all tax increases.
“The Republican leader in the Senate made certain representations that they might stop walking precincts for me,” he said, “I could lose my race if I didn’t sign it. I don’t want to say it (working across party lines) was friction-free. Having said that, I did win my race without signing it.”
Blakeslee will be leaving the legislature in December, having decided not to run for re-election. His bipartisan work will continue, however, with his founding of the California Reform Institute, a think tank designed to create politically viable, bipartisan solutions to problems facing California.
Blakeslee said compromise and bipartisan legislation is possible, but policymakers will need to be ready to face the possible consequences.
“There’s no doubt taking these (bipartisan) steps will require moving out of one’s comfort zone,” he said. “To believe it will be pain free to drive big reforms down the middle is a fiction. It will be challenging. … It will be difficult, it will be risky, it will produce pain, but it is essential.”