I worked as a staffer in the California State Senate from 1978 through 1985. During that time, I learned everything I needed to know, not just about the Legislature and the political process, but about life itself.
In particular, I learned:
Keep Your Word
Like the diamond traders who do multi-million dollar deals with a handshake, you’ve got to be known as reliable. If you don’t do what you say you will do, others will think you unreliable at best, or malicious at worst. Either way, if people can’t count on your commitments, then you will find that the word will get around and life will be very difficult because so much depends on people keeping their word.
Show Respect, especially to adversaries
Just because someone does not agree with your views, they are not evil or worthy of your contempt. Treating others with respect will often win their respect, if only grudgingly. Showing respect will open doors and create possibilities that might not have happened otherwise. It gives them a reason to be generous.
Fight Hard, Play Hard
Some of the best times I had in Sacramento were playing touch football (it was supposed to be touch anyway) in an on-going irregular game between the Governor’s office team against a press corps team. Even though our jobs often pitted us against each other, the camaraderie of the football field helped keep us human in our other dealings.
Understand your Opponent’s Arguments and Perspectives
Until you know what your opponents on a given issue think and why, you won’t be able to offer compromises that are attractive to them. You’ll also be in a better position to rebut them when confronted by people who’ve talked to them.
Timing is Everything
Every comic and every salesperson knows this truth. It is also true in the Legislature where there may be a very specific small window for a particular idea or amendment.
Unusual Alliances are Powerful Alliances
You’ll turn heads, attract attention, and be taken more seriously if you partner with an unusual ally, perhaps a former adversary, for a particular project or bill.
Shared Struggles Create Powerful Bonds
You may be surprised to find out that you feel most understood and appreciated by people who’ve been in the Legislative trenches with you. Failing to recognize this phenomenon (similar to cast party romances) has upset many marriages in Sacramento.
Don’t Be Too Predictable
If you want to have real power you need to be able to take a different tack and risk offending your base of support. If you’re too predictable, it is hard to be a player, a dealmaker.
Learn Which Secrets Must be Kept and Keep Them
People will only continue to confide in you only if you show that you can keep the secrets that really need to be kept. Everyone discloses some confidences to someone. The key is to know which is which.
Things Can Change Overnight
One story, one scandal, one accident can change the political landscape in the blink of an eye.
It’s Not Over Until It’s Over, and even then, it may not be over
In Legislative reality, nothing is ever over until the constitutional end of a two year session. And even then, it is only over until the next session or until you can get unanimous consent to suspend the constitution.