PROVIDENCE — As she mingled for the first time with her fellow freshman legislators, Pawtucket Senator-elect Donna Nesslebush had the sense that she was starting upon something significant.
“For an athlete, someone who likes to win, this is getting into the big game,” Nesslebush said just before the bell clamored through the House Lounge, signaling that the General Assembly’s freshman orientation was about to begin. In her case, it was the first time in 50 years that her Senate district was to be represented by someone whose name was not John McBurney; she is succeeding the former dean of the Senate, John F. McBurney III, who followed his father, John F. McBurney Jr, into the Senate.
For the large group of incoming lawmakers — 22 new representatives, seven first-time senators — it would be a long day of listening to speeches, taking tours (it’s important to learn where the House Speaker’s and Senate Presidents offices are, as well as the law revision office, not to mention the restrooms) and plenty of paperwork, filling out the forms for their medical and dental insurance, legislators’ license plates, mileage compensation and business cards.
As the morning session started to get behind schedule, Frank Anzeveno, chief of staff to House Speaker Gordon Fox warned the neophytes, “I guess the first lesson you really need to learn is that there is a difference between real time and legislative time.” The General Assembly is notorious for its hurry-up-and-wait pace, where important meetings can begin hours after their scheduled start time.
The first advice Fox had for the new lawmakers was “be yourselves.” He said legislatures are social bodies and the personal relationships the members form with one another “are invaluable. You will meet some dear friends among yourselves.”
“If you give someone your commitment, keep it,” Fox counseled. “Your word is your bond. You will be judged on how you keep your commitments. Do not give them loosely. Do not give them without deliberation, without learning all sides of an issue.”
Noting that nobody got elected with 100 percent of the vote, Fox told the newbies, “You will represent people who do not necessarily agree with you. But you have to be open to their ideas as well. When you are representing the wishes and desires of others, it is a very serious endeavor.”
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed cautioned the newcomers that “how you act, how you behave, the things you do, reflect not just on you anymore as an individual, but upon this institution. That is a new responsibility, a new mantle, that you take on today.”
Paiva Weed instructed them to switch gears from electioneering to governing.
“The election is over,” she said, “the bands have stopped playing, the soundbites should be put aside. We need to put aside the partisanship, we need to get around to the business of governing. That’s what is our responsibility, that is what the voters expect of each and every one of us.
“That doesn’t mean abandon your ideals, of course not,” the Paiva Weed added. “What it does mean it is time to focus, time to learn what makes government successful and what we can do during this very difficult economic crisis to move Rhode Island forward.
Rep. Robert Watson, the leader of the Republican minority in the House, which just doubled in size from four members to eight in the 75-member House, wasn’t going to let the Senate President get away with that putting aside partisanship stuff.
“The election did end, but don’t ever mistake this for a bi-partisan room,” the often-combative minority leader instructed.
“There is still a partisan tinge that takes place and occurs here,” Watson said. “I am going to be skeptical about the legislation that the Democrats, the vast majority of Democrats that, let’s face it, control this room.
Again playing off the speech of Paiva Weed, -- who said, the easiest thing in the world is to vote against a budget because they all contain something not to like but legislators need to take a step back and do what is in the best interest of the entire state – Watson said “It’s very easy to vote against these budgets, they’re awful.”
Following the theme of previous speakers that legislators should be respectful of one another, Watson agreed, joking, “you are here to make friends. Enemies will come of their own volition, believe me when I tell you.”
Dennis Algiere, leader of the also tiny Republican minority in the Senate, advised, “you will spend a lot of time up here. It is a balancing act; we have to balance the constitutional obligations at the Statehouse and understanding your home fires. You take your job seriously up here, but keep in mind you do have families and you do have jobs. It is a juggling act and it is sometimes difficult.”