Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny: Book Review: "All Politics is Personal"

Is this where I put in key words such as sex, lesbians, vampires, Christopher Lloyd and others things to which this blog do not pertain, but by putting them here, I may get hits from all the Christoper Lloyd lesbian vampire fans (and you know who you are)? This is the primarily humorous and occasionally rambling writings of Leon Tchaikovsky, humor writer. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Book Review: "All Politics is Personal"

Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny

The autobiography of Ralph Wright, Vermont’s longest serving House Speaker, provides insights into another’s states legislature. Vermont legislators represent approximately 3,750 people. Pennsylvania legislators represent districts about 20 times larger. When Rep. Wright told Massachusetts State Sen. Bill Bulger that he represented 3,750 people, Sen. Bulger responded by proclaiming "I could take that many to lunch." Further, Vermont legislators have no personal staff or offices. Perish the thought.

As Speaker Wright describes the legislature, "there is no IQ test to gain admission to the legislature. The place would not be full if there were." From there, he presents his personal insights with critical and blatant honesty of what he thought of many Governors and fellow legislators with whom he served.

Ralph Wright was a political oddity in that he was a Democratic Speaker in one of the nation’s most Republican states while Republicans held a majority of legislative seats. Further, he was a liberal Democrat generally at odds with Republican philosophies. Yet, he was able to sway enough Republican legislators to not only elect him as Speaker yet continue to keep him in office.

This book offers what Rep. Wright claims was his secret to success: Listen. He would observe what other legislators said and learn what their goals were. He won the confidence and approval from others by being a good listener.

Another crucial difference that allows legislators like Ralph Wright to achieve leadership is that Vermont, unlike most other states, has a history of bipartisan cooperation. Legislative committee chairs often were distributed by about ten chairs for representatives from the majority party and three or four committee chairs from minority party legislators.

A Speaker is analogous to a symphony conductor, in Mr. Wright’s analysis. Legislative debates need to be orchestrated in a sensible order. Mishandling Speaker duties can create noise and ruin the legislative production.

Ralph Wright had several legislative successes in getting stricter environmental and stronger education bills passed. In fighting for issues that Mr. Wright felt strongly about, he was able to pass legislation. Not bad for a member and leader of the minority political party.

The author is an advocate of the "keep it simple, stupid" rule. He warns that presenting issues in too complex a fashion raises doubts from listeners. Most legislators appear to follow another rule that "when in doubt, vote no." He advises against creating such doubt.

The book describes many trying times for the Vermont legislature. They once faced a budget deficit during the Reagan recession that equaled one fifth of their budget. It tells many legislative stories, including one time when a committee chairman literally killed a bill by walking out of the Capitol holding it. Killing bills, incidentally, is mentioned as an often little noticed but major part of legislative, and lobbying, work.

Ironically, Speaker Wright states his least favorite years in the legislature were when Democrats won a majority of legislative seats along with there being a Democratic Governor. He tells of nearly winning an uphill struggle to win single payer universal health care coverage for all Vermonters, only to have it killed by fellow Democrats.

In sum, as the book is titled, the author argues that "all politics is personal". He tells of one legislative campaign that was fought strictly on issues and voting records. In Ralph Wright’s observations, this was the only election that this has ever happened. Most campaigns he has observed rest on the personalities and composition of the candidates themselves. He proudly states he never spent more than $250 on a legislative race. (Try that in Pennsylvania.) In legislative districts that size of those in Vermont, it is easier for legislators to develop personal contacts with constituents. The lessons of the personal nature of politics do offer important lessons for all. Unfortunately, that lesson may be more attuned to a different, although perhaps more refreshing, era. Ralph Wright’s legislative career came to an end when an opponent spent 75 times more than did Wright on the campaign. Perhaps all politics WAS personal.


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