Lessons of a Mississippi Freshman Legislator

Dana.Criswell.jpgBy Rep. Dana Criswell

(This article appeared on Mississippi Conservative Daily, September 6, 2017)

On new years day 2015 my wife, Julie and I sat down and discussed the idea of me running for Mississippi district 6 state representative. I've lived in Olive Branch since 1998, watching politics from a distance, mostly voting and complaining about government. As a strong second amendment supporter I had become involved in politics through my efforts to improve our gun laws, and after learning about how government works I was compelled to get more involved.

Over the last 3 years I've learned many lessons about politics and government. Here are five that stand out.

 1. There are approximately 20 principled immovable people in the MS House of Representatives

 I expected to walk onto the floor of the MS House of Representatives and be greeted by 121 other Type-A personalities. After-all, these men and women are required to make decisions that affect the 3 million citizens of our state. I assumed they would be confident decisive people but, I found instead approximately 20 principled legislators and 101 who are afraid to voice an opinion. I was surprised at the number of times other legislators told me they agreed with my position but were afraid to vote with me because of pressure from leadership or politicians back home. These legislators actually believe in the conservative principles on which they were elected but are afraid to stand up for their convictions. I was completely caught off guard by this and could not understand why they were so afraid.

 2. Politicians value one thing – re-election

 I’ve begun to understand why these conservative minded legislators are so afraid to stand on principle and vote their convictions. The most important thing to the majority of elected officials is re-election. It drives them, it's what keeps them awake at night. The draw of being re-elected controls every move they make. One of the first things I was told when I stood on an unpopular belief (unpopular among politicians not citizens) was that I could never be re-elected if I held to that view. That statement confused me at first because I knew I was originally elected because I promised to hold to that belief. But I've since learned that what they are really saying is that if I hold to a belief and vote accordingly the power brokers at the state capitol will be unhappy and will not give me money to run a re-election campaign.

As a citizen I've asked many times why politicians change once elected, why do they say one thing but then vote another. I've come to learn that it's the split between pleasing the people to get their vote and pleasing the lobbyist to get their money. Because to win an election you need both, votes and money.

 

 3. Lobbyist play an important role.

 Lobbyist are a strange breed of people in the political process. These men and women are paid to convince legislators to support their customers agenda. Many are good people with strong conservative beliefs, and they are probably some of the most honest people around the capital. Its no secret that they have an agenda so there is never any doubt about there intentions. Its refreshing to talk to someone who is open and honest about what they want, you certainly don't find that with most other politicians.

 I've learned that a good lobbyist is a valuable asset for information. They are well versed in their position and generally know both sides of an issue. The advice I was given when I first arrived at the capitol was to ask the lobbyist to explain his oppositions side. If they can do that then they might be someone you can trust.

 The lobbyist control the money needed for reelection and as you would expect they meter out that money to those who vote the way they like. So for a politician who cares mostly about reelection, the pressure to please the lobbyist is immense. If a member stands against them they might be cut off from the funds needed to run a campaign.

 4. Power is concentrated in a select few

 Another fallacy I believed was that politics was about winning debates. I believed that as an elected representative I would be one of the 122 decision makers about how our state is managed. What I've discovered is that power is concentrated in a select few, usually these are chairmen of the most powerful committees like Appropriations, Ways and Means, Public Health and a couple of others. Those few make the decisions and set the agenda and the others are expected to “join the team”. Many are happy to do so because that means they have someone protecting them and providing them cover for their votes. Real debate rarely happens.

 5. Any weakness or character flaw will be used against you

 One thing is certain in politics. Any weakness in your character or personality will be exploited. There are those who are experts at reading people and figuring out what they desire. If it's position, they'll create a position for you so you are satisfied. If you desire money, a need to belong or ego, if you go along with them they can provide what you need. But, if you stray from their plan they will take it from you in a heartbeat. This means a politician must guard against allowing others to fulfill their personal needs, you've got to constantly check your decisions against the standard you held, to get elected. It's also important to have someone you trust who will be brutally honest with you and evaluate your decisions. For me its my wife, who is uncompromising in her adherence to the truth and is honest about my decisions. I've also got a small group of fellow legislators, all from Desoto County, who hold me accountable for my votes and decisions.

 

Citizens play a huge role in keeping their representatives on the correct path. You hold one of the two most important items a politician needs, Your Vote! I once believed that after I elected a conservative minded politician my work was done. But now I realize that the pressures to compromise, to give in and to abandon those principles are often more than anyone can withstand on their own. It takes citizens who are constantly watching and constantly demanding adherence to the principles.

 

 

There is hope

 

As I read through what I've written I know its negative. One character flaw of mine is that I see problems and if I'm not careful I become overwhelmed with the negative issues. But there are glimmers of hope. The people, especially those in Desoto County are waking up, they are holding their elected officials accountable for their actions and their votes.

 

In the past two years the citizens of Mississippi have voiced their opposition and defeated efforts to increase the gas tax, they've defeated efforts to implement an unconstitutional internet sales tax and they have forced the legislature to cut the state budget for the first time in years.

 

There is a positive future for Mississippi. We do not have to be the state most dependent on federal money, we do not have to be last in education and last in personal income. The citizens are waking up to the fact that we are in this situation because big government policies have run our state into the ground. Smaller government and more personal freedom is the answer to our dilemma and we are heading in that direction.

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