Mike Jacobs: What makes a good legislator?

In the political calendar, this is the time for thoughtful planning. Late winter is the season during which candidates are chosen, thus framing the choices that will be presented at election time.

In the political calendar, this is the time for thoughtful planning. Late winter is the season during which candidates are chosen, thus framing the choices that will be presented at election time.

It's a little bit like farming. Choosing candidates is spring work; election is the harvest. In North Dakota, spring work has begun. It will continue through April 9, the deadline for filing for elections this year.

District conventions are under way for both parties. These have two critical functions. One is to choose delegates to the state conventions, which will choose candidates for statewide office. The other is to name those who will be candidates for the state Legislature. This is arguably the more important business of these conventions. The role of the Legislature in a representative government can't be exaggerated. As the old adage says, governor proposes, but the Legislature disposes.

That makes this an appropriate time to ask a basic question: What makes a good legislator?

The question is among those posed by a series of conversations about good government in North Dakota. The exercise is sponsored by NDSU's Northern Plains Ethics Institute and ThinkND, which describes itself on its website as "a new independent, nonpartisan organization."


Organizers invited Dr. Paul Sum and me to moderate a discussion tonight in Grand Forks. Sum is professor and chair of UND's Department of Political Science and Public Administration; I've been watching and writing about politics in North Dakota for half a century. This involves keeping a close eye on every legislative session since 1975, several of them on a full-time basis.

What makes a good legislator? That's up to each individual voter, who must weigh the skills of a candidate against his or her individual agenda, whether it's a political program or a single issue.

The sum of these individual choices decides the composition of the Legislature.

The process works, at least in my experience. I have known one or two legislators who were self-serving and perhaps a couple of dozen who were driven solely by ideology. For most, I'd argue, two other influences were paramount. One of these, undeniably, is geographic.

Legislators represent their own districts, and few are those who dare to ignore their local interests. Not every issue is a local issue, however, and sometimes statewide issues loom larger than strictly local one.

That is when the most important motivation emerges, and that is public service. A good legislator must genuinely want to do the right thing.

Several others characteristics are important. One is a capacity for work. Nearly 850 bills and resolutions were dealt with in the 2017 legislative session. Dealing with proposed legislation involves committee meetings, party caucus, floor sessions - and of course, decision making. It's far too much for a single individual to undertake.

This leaves out the social side of the session, an almost constant round of receptions, dinners and meetings with constituents. Time management is important.


Perhaps more important than either of these is choosing whom to trust. No legislator can be an expert on everything, but just about every legislator becomes an expert on something. Knowing and trusting the judgment of others helps keep chaos at bay. Sometimes that means following a party's leadership, but many issues don't have partisan implications.

All of these characteristics transcend commitment to single issues or even to political parties. My experience has been that too extreme a commitment to any issue diminishes a legislator's effectiveness. That might not be important for a voter who is committed to a particular party or a particular point of view, but it is important to effectiveness in a deliberative body like the Legislature.

As a journalist, I've come to value another characteristic, the ability to explain an issue. The legislators I've valued most are the ones who have pointed out the impact of a proposed bill or explained the motives or the political considerations involved.

If I were pressed to name an individual who personified these characteristics, I'd mention John Andrist, who represented a district in the far northwestern corner of the state for 20 years beginning in 1993. Andrist was a Republican, and his party affiliation informed many of his political judgments.

His faith was important to him, and it influenced his decision making. He was also a community booster who understood that small things make a big difference in neighborhoods' and individuals' lives.

He was also a newspaperman, and I appreciated that.

Most of all, I think, Andrist was driven by a belief that individuals have an obligation to one another and to the communities we build. Andrist died Jan. 11. His funeral was among the largest I've ever attended.

Tonight's discussion about good government starts at 7 in the Lecture Bowl of UND's Memorial Union. Organizers have assured that there will be parking. Refreshments will be served. Important topics will be considered.


Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.

What To Read Next
Get Local