What Every Trenton Newbie Should Know

Zwicker, left.

Zwicker, left.

So you’re swearing in today, huh? Congratulations! You’re a Trenton Newbie! (Buckle up, it’s gonnna be a big day!)

(Trenton)–Today we’ll swear in New Jersey’s General Assembly, including the newest members who’ll take their oath-of-office at Trenton’s Memorial Theater. These tend to be convivial affairs where neophytes bus their friends and family up to witness with wide eyes what’s likely become boring for the veterans. I’ve covered a half-dozen of these things and two stand out: 2008 (because it  was 75 degrees in January and everyone was in a heavenly mood) and 2014 when the ceremony came on the heels of Governor Chris Christie’s BridgeGate scandal which basically cast a sad pall on the entire event.

Time will tell what’s today’s kickoff will be remembered for. If the new members wanna make sure today is invoked for all the right reasons, they’d be wise to read today’s column. If for nothing else to distract themselves from those inevitable first day jitters.

Dear New Legislators,

You’ll get a lot of advise today. Take it. Starting with the following suggestions:

1) Read this column outlining the most annoying things Trenton legislators do. Take careful notes about why showing up late to work is a bad idea. Study up on how it looks when you play Angry Birds while a resident is pouring his heart out in your committee. And most of all, contemplate the lack of self-awareness that seems to grip a good many of your more tenured colleagues as they scale the ranks in Trenton. Most them started like you are right right now: eager and ready to do the right things! But in far too many cases, legislators seems to forget that the state house doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to us. They’re just the help! And now you are too.

2) Listen! (Don’t talk!) It’s awkward bringing this up, but I’ve seen a few of you on the campaign trail where I discovered your penchant for endless soliloquy. Here’s what I recommend: to the extent possible, dedicate 2016 to be the year you learn to listen as well as you speak. As a Freshman backbencher, you may encounter the urge to fill every moment of silence with your infinite wisdom. Resist that urge for the time being while you learn to absorb the wisdom of others. Listening with empathy takes practice. Looking like you’re listening with empathy also takes practice. As someone clearly enamored with the sound of my own voice, I tread on hypocrisy with this suggestion. But that’s ok because I’m not a brand new lawmaker  with lots to learn. You are. And your chances are greatly enhanced by turning off your mouth for the time being.

3) Turnout. (If you’re comfortable with only 1 in 5 eligible voters choosing you and your colleagues, skip to #4. Otherwise keep reading!) The election that swept you into power also happened to be the lowest turnout election in recent memory. Please let that sad, sorry statistic animate and haunt your thinking for the duration of your political life. If you’re comfortable with embarrassingly low voter turnout in NJ, you don’t deserve this job. But if voting trends alarm you, please do everything in your power to get more people registered and to the polls.

4) Pair up! Choose at least one bestie from the opposite party and cultivate that relationship as if the very future of American democracy depends on it! Yes, that last sentence seems a tad bit melodramatic. But if you flip on cable TV (or catch the latest SuperPAC ad campaign) you’ll quickly learn that American civil discourse is in the toilet! What role will you play in creating a more constructive dialogue? Having a bipartisan BFF might be a good start! In today’s toxic political environment, a little bi-partisan ship can be awfully refreshing, especially to the many voters who’ve grown weary of all the nasty bickering that fuels the 24 hour news cycle. You’ll have more credibility (and inspire more confidence) if you’re willing to play nice with your opposition. It’s a guarantee.

5) Have fun. Act grateful. Enjoy! You have a gig many would kill for!

This may seem like a bit of a preemptive admonition and I guess it is. But it’s sent with love and the hopes you’ll enter into this phase of your lives with eyes wide open.

For a look back at this day, go here.

Jay Lassiter started covering New Jersey politics in 2005 as a blogger for BlueJersey.com. After a stint as America’s first State House blogger, Jay did communication for Congressman Rob Andrews and Congressman John Adler. Jay’s best known for his work legalizing medical marijuana and gay marriage and for working to end N.J.’s death penalty. He’s on Twitter @Jay_Lass