Northern Michigan's freshmen lawmakers learn the 'intricate stuff' of Lansing

Jan 22, 2015

Rep. Lee Chatfield and Rep. Triston Cole

A new session began for state lawmakers last week. 

The newest members of the state House of Representatives and Senate from northern Michigan are settling into new offices and hiring staff, among many other things.

Right now they’re learning about new jobs and about the challenges of getting anything done in Lansing.

One of the main challenges  is learning one's role as a freshman lawmaker, says Bill Ballenger.

He founded the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, but before that Ballenger served in the state house and senate.

He still remembers the advice he got when he started as a representative in 1969. It came from his neighbor in the house, a senior Democrat.

“Don’t get up and talk all the time," Ballenger says. "Don’t get up and call attention to yourself more frequently than you have to.”

Besides learning your role, Ballenger says lawmakers have a lot of other stuff to learn, too – like floor procedure, which is the way bills are introduced and move through committees.

“There’s a lot of intricate stuff that has to be learned," Ballenger says. "But I think most new lawmakers come to Lansing with some knowledge of government and how it works.”

Lee Chatfield is a freshman in the state house, representing the northernmost part of lower Michigan – and part of the Upper Peninsula. Last week he found out what committees he’d be serving on, which Chatfield says was an exciting experience.

“I kind of felt at times like I was a kid waiting for Christmas, waiting to find out what committees you’re going to serve on and how you’re going to be able to influence policy," Chatfield says.

He was named chairman of the local government committee, but since he’s a former history teacher he says he's most passionate about education.

Chatfield wants to stop the implementation of common core standards.

“What works in Cedarville Michigan may not work in Los Angeles," Chatfield says. "And I think it’s a wrong policy to try to put everyone on the same standard. You know the one size all educational approach never works.”

But to get anything done, new lawmakers need to learn what's called the political ‘math’ of Lansing.

“It’s 56, 20, and 1," says State Rep. Triston Cole. "Meaning a majority in the house, a majority in the senate, and then the governor’s signature.”

Cole is another freshman lawmaker, whose district includes Antrim and Charlevoix counties. He’s done a lot of jobs in his life, including working as both a truck driver and a hunting guide, but he started a family farm in 2000.

Later on Cole served as head of the Antrim County Farm Bureau, and last week he found out he’d been named vice-chair of the house agriculture committee.

Cole says farming is one of the top economic segments of the state's economy, and he wants to promote it to bring more jobs to northern Michigan.

"We’ve got a lot of exciting things happening here in northern Michigan, from the farm market side, the tourism side, to the actual expansion of production agriculture here in the district," Cole says.

Cole says he can promote farming by getting rid of what he calls "burdensome regulations" on farmers.

To accomplish anything, Cole is going to have to learn how state politicking really works – the kind of lessons that aren't found in civics textbooks. That can take some time, according to Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics.

And with term limits, time is often something freshmen lawmakers don’t have.

“That’s one of the great criticisms of term limits," Ballenger says. "Some lawmakers are claiming even when they’ve been here five or six years, and they’re just really feeling they are getting command of the situation, they’re forced to exit office by term limit.”

The new lawmakers have a little time before the legislative session gets into full swing. Most lawmaking won't happen until after Governor Rick Snyder lays out his budget priorities for the new year. That won’t come until February 11.