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Phil: On Wednesday the new Legislature was sworn in. Do you remember the first time you raised your right hand?
Ethan: I do. I was surprisingly nervous. You are one of 35 in the Maine Senate, so no one is watching you, but somehow I was very concerned about flubbing the oath.Thankfully, I believe I nailed it.
Phil: I remember the governor telling me that I will look around the Senate chamber and say to myself, “Wow, how did I get here?” He then said that before the end of the session I would look around the Senate chamber and say “Wow, how the heck did they get here?!”
Ethan: Ha! No comment. I found pretty quickly that the “swearing-in” becomes the “swearing-at” as the special-interest vultures descend upon your legislative lapel pin.
Phil: So, any advice for the first-term faces, and those returning to the fray?
Ethan: Best advice I ever heard was something then-Rep. Ben Dudley of Portland said, which I believe was passed down to him from an elder. “Remember, no one in this chamber is your constituent. Your constituents are those who elected you and they should always guide your votes.” It was a reminder to always keep the people of your district at the forefront, not your colleagues or your leadership.
Phil: Are you sure that wasn’t advice I passed on?
Ethan: I did say “elder.”
Phil: My own story on this theme is when I wouldn’t vote for a budget in the Appropriations Committee because it would have been going along to get along. Instead, I created my own budget. The vote was 1-12 on my amendment and when I moved it on the floor of the Senate, I felt very alone. Yet it was the right thing for those I served.
Ethan: I opposed a Democratic budget once because it was balanced on the backs of selling off future revenue. Talk about being sworn at.
Phil: I am impressed by your fiscal prudence.
Ethan: Have no fear, I opposed those shenanigans because it would have jeopardized future payments to programs essential to the health of so many in our state. What’s your advice?
Phil: “Stand up to be seen. Speak up to be heard. And sit down to be appreciated.”
Ethan: Spoken like a man who may have delivered too many floor speeches that fell on deaf ears. I can relate. Although, I am never one to tell new legislators to “wait their turn.” From day one, you have as much right to speak up as a seasoned vet. And speaking up is a key part of the job.
Phil: Another bit of advice is to understand that your great idea for a new program is stepping on another legislator’s great idea to reduce taxes — and vice versa. Whatever side of the aisle, this has to be at the forefront of every legislator’s mind.
Ethan: You may find this remarkable, but I used to have on my refrigerator a magnet that had a quote by Thomas Jefferson, “Never spend your money before you have it.”
Phil: Who is this Ethan?
Ethan: It’s something you conservatives may never understand. While we progressives may want more government investment in the economy, we are always willing to pay for it through a more fair tax code.
Phil: “More fair…” There’s the Ethan I love. As you know, the framers of Maine’s Constitution were smart to require a balanced budget. You know the tricks of the trade as well as I do. There are so many shell games with unfilled positions, carry-over funds, and surplus cash sitting in dedicated accounts and so on.
Ethan: That’s where those vultures I mentioned come in. Somehow they always find the money for that corporate welfare or tax break, while pleading poverty for every program that might actually help someone.
Phil: The creativity of some lobbyists and commissioners to move money around was quite enlightening. Sometimes you would walk through the rotunda and feel like someone just opened their jacket to reveal a collection of watches for you, if you voted their way.
Ethan: Maybe that’s the best advice we can give: “Beware of lobbyists bearing watches.”
Phil: More simply, “Be informed.”
Phil Harriman, a former town councilor and state senator from Yarmouth, is the founding partner of Lebel & Harriman, a financial services firm. Ethan Strimling, a former mayor and state senator from Portland, is the president of Swing Hard. Turn Left, which promotes progressive policy at the local, state and national levels.