Colorado’s legislators work, theoretically, part-time, so while juggling meetings and constituent work, I try to fit in other learning experiences that expand my knowledge and abilities as a legislator. I was fortunate to have a couple of those opportunities in November.
Early in November, I was invited to join a dozen legislative leaders from across the country to participate in a unique leadership program. We traveled to Gettysburg to walk in the steps, literally, of the commanders of both Union and Confederate troops, who’d done their best to make good decisions with very high stakes, based on limited information and chaotic conditions, to say the least.
We had prepared for the leadership workshop by reading the book Killer Angels as that historical fiction laid out the background for the discussions we’d have in Gettysburg. Our group consisted of legislators from states on both sides of the Civil War and we all recognized strands of similar conversations today regarding states’ rights, the preservation of the union, and the power struggles among different regions in our states and country.
Yet rehashing the outcome of the war, or its aftermath, didn’t enter into our discussions. Instead, we considered the turmoil and heavy responsibility that those Civil War leaders felt, while acknowledging the immediate and drastic gravity of the scenarios they faced. Our daily challenges pale in comparison and it was a thought-provoking few days.
Given Colorado’s recent turmoil over several very contentious issues leading to two Democratic senators being recalled and now a third senator’s resignation since we broke for the interim last May, I continue to consider what lessons I might take from Gettysburg back to Denver with me in January.
Another opportunity in November was to join a different group of state legislators to share best practices on connecting with constituents and stakeholders. With 8 counties in a remote district, I’m always interested in learning what other legislators are doing to improve legislator and constituent interactions. We live in a time of considerable discord, not of the proportion that led to the Civil War, but discord that can’t be ignored, answered simply, or wished away.
As state legislators, many of us across the country don’t have staff or the financial resources to send others out to collect information or to meet with constituents for us. This is a positive in that most constituents prefer direct access to their legislator. However, the downside is that each legislator can be in only one place at one time. In this workshop, co-hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Kettering Foundation, of Dayton, Ohio, we discussed how to utilize our time most effectively and to create more meaningful discussions and interactions with our constituents.
This wasn’t about how to have soft, “feel good” focus groups or how to be a better campaigner. Instead, we sought ideas on how to delve more deeply in conversation and problem solving with our constituents and not just applying convoluted and, too often, overly partisan legislative fixes that compound rather than resolve the challenges in front of us.
The range of complex issues state legislators face daily in their jobs is daunting. These learning experiences help me do my job better and, for that, and, most of all, for my family and friends, I’m very thankful.
Ellen Roberts represents Senate District 6 in Colorado’s General Assembly. The district encompasses Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata, Archuleta, Montrose, San Miguel, San Juan and Ouray counties. Contact Sen. Roberts by phone at (303) 866-4884, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.