Policy Today

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Written by Jana Saastad   
Wednesday, 28 March 2007
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California legislators feel the pull of constituent interests, personal beliefs, party politics and interest group pressure.

On any given day, elected officials across the country are accused of being "beholden" to any number of people, causes and lobbies. In their scorn, Americans regard factionalism the same way Washington and Madison did 200 years ago.

But 2007 is a far cry from 1787, and although the ultimate legislative objective—fair constituent representation—has remained relatively constant, the structure of the game itself has changed. For elected officials, that means "doing the right thing" isn't always clear cut. More often than not,
their decisions don't indicate submission to one group or another; it just means they have a very difficult job.

Benefactors or constituents?

"I don't think every politician is self interested, or a committed party hack," says Steve Levin, political reform project director at the Center for Government Studies. "But there are legislators who are committed to staying in office for as long as possible; whether that means pleasing their benefactors or pleasing the constituent."

Serving constituents' needs may be the first order of business for state legislators, but even that has its limits. "If you mean serving their needs, certainly that is a top priority for my staff, especially the district staff," says Assemblyman Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks). "If you mean reflecting their views on all things—that's impossible.  It is not possible to know for sure what the majority of my constituents think on every individual issue, even when I receive a lot of input."

Trust and common sense

So, what are citizens looking for from their representatives if it isn't always an "accurate" representation of the district's wishes? "They hope their representative will have common sense," says Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa, (R-Richvale). "If they do, that's the best they [constituents] can expect."

Effective leadership also requires saying "No" to constituents from time to time as well.

"You have to look at the issues your constituents are raising to make sure they are real," cautions Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). "Just because they are raising it, doesn't mean it's legitimate."

Yee illustrates a balancing act amid constituents, the business and professional world, the ideals of the Democratic Party and his own personal beliefs. "Constituents don't always believe they are being appropriately represented," he says.

Many elected officials master the legislative tightrope through a different perspective. When representatives shift their focus from "representing" to crafting sound policies, they generally succeed.

The ultimate goal: good state policy

For an example of the occasional rift between constituents' opinion and the nuances of the legislative process, Lee points to the issue of gay marriage. "Gay marriage is not supported in Chinese community, but I personally feel it is an important equality issue."

For legislators like LaMalfa, the schisms are few and far between. "Striking a balance between representing my district, my party and my personal beliefs isn't necessarily difficult because the values found in my faith are consistent with those found in my party and constituency," explains LaMalfa.

If only the annual budget process were so easy.





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