Why Institutional Knowledge Matters in the #TXLege

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There are a number of ways Texas Republicans have advantages over Texas Democrats, and since the holidays are supposed to be a time of peace and joy, I won’t go into them all here. But one of the advantages Democrats do have is critically important: seniority and the institutional knowledge that comes with it.

Everyone always says how bad the Texas Legislature can be. I’m not sure anyone can appreciate how much worse it would be if we didn’t have Senate and House Democrats who had served for so long. When battling uphill in a game that may often be rigged against you, knowing every tactical pressure point is essential to advancing as far as possible. That’s where institutional knowledge creates an advantage.

During the last legislative session, 5 of the 6 longest-serving members in the Texas Senate and 13 of the 16 longest-serving members in the Texas House were Democrats. Mayor-elect Sylvester Turner was 6th in seniority last year; outgoing Rep. Elliott Naishtat was 7th. Together, the two of them had 50 years of experience serving in the Texas Legislature.

That experience is the difference between thinking, “I need to file this bill, get it heard and passed in committee, get it out of Calendars and passed on the floor” – and knowing how to accomplish (in a timely manner) all the 25-30 detailed steps that occur in between those big markers. Rep. Garnet Coleman – who will be 6th in seniority next session – once told me, “Some people try to win inch-by-inch, but the real success comes when you can work and win between the inches.”

Knowing what lives between the inches comes with seniority and experience, especially when you consider the full scope of work for a member of the Legislature:

  • Constituent service – problem solving every letter that comes in the mail; working with state agencies and government relations personnel on behalf of your constituents; attending local events and meeting with community leaders
  • Public policy – creating, promoting, and passing legislation; serving on committees and tracking issues and information in the “off-season”; working with issue-based coalitions on any number of bills, agency rules, or other policy choices
  • Accountability – knowing every rule in the book; going to the back mic to raise awareness on an issue you just learned about; negotiating on the chamber floor to stop bad bills from coming up at all
  • Communications – maintaining relationships with media; sustaining a robust social media presence; explaining your actions and positions to your constituents
  • Political leadership – work with various legislative caucuses; fundraising; supporting local GOTV efforts for any number of state or local campaigns; providing assistance to the county or state party

Add to all of that the fact that elected officials employ a fair number of people to help run their offices – a task that ranges from staff management and payroll decisions to strategic planning and leadership development. All of that for a job that is part-time, doesn’t pay well, and is completely separate from the real job an elected official has to take care of yourself and your family.

Institutional knowledge is how you get better at all of those things – and how, in some cases, you make doing all those things look easy. Institutional knowledge in the #TXLege matters because the information accumulated, relationships built, and networks strengthened over the years are critical to successful governance and sustained leadership.

Yes, new voices and new ideas matter. But they’re nothing without the knowledge and wherewithal for getting the job done.

That’s why we are so grateful to those elected officials – like Reps. Naishtat and Turner – who have figured it out, lasted so long, and given newcomers a blueprint for success.

Phillip Martin worked as Chief of Staff for Rep. Garnet Coleman in 2007, and as Policy Director for the Legislative Study Group in 2011. A former daily writer for BOR, Phillip is now Deputy Director at Progress Texas.

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About Author

Phillip Martin

Currently the Research and Policy Director for Progress Texas and the Texas Research Institute, Phillip Martin writes occasional long-form pieces for BOR that promote focused analysis and insight into Texas politics. Born and raised in Austin, Phillip started working in politics in 2003 and started writing on BOR in the summer of 2005. Phillip has worked for the Texas Democratic Trust, the Texas Legislative Study Group, and now the Progress Texas family. He is a lifelong Houston Astros fan, a loyal Longhorn, and loves swimming at Barton Springs Pool.

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