Words of wisdom from 2 lawmakers

"There's no 'maybe' button."

By: Jane Thaden Lawson .

Doug Barthel serves in the South Dakota Legislature
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Sanford Health employees Kristin Roers of Fargo, North Dakota, and Doug Barthel, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota are serving in their respective statehouses this session. Because so many pieces of legislation deal with health care, Sanford Health supports its citizen lawmakers, though some of them still handle their workload — or bake cookies for coworkers who pick up the slack.

Here are lessons and observations from them.

Doug Barthel

Legislators work hard.

In a session, 500 bills might be introduced. Sure, some will get killed in committee and not make it to the House or Senate floor. But committee members still have the responsibility to learn about each bill before them. Barthel said serving on the Judiciary Committee last session was a natural fit for his law enforcement background, but even there, unfamiliar topics came up.

“There’s no ‘maybe’ button.”

Decisions can be difficult, when you’re listening to both sides and trying to determine what the majority of your district residents want. But in the end, each lawmaker has a duty to push either the “Yes” or “No” button on his or her desk.

You have to find people to trust.

“None of us are experts in everything,” Barthel said. Yet bills in the Legislature might affect every aspect of society. He learned who to trust and rely on for expertise or advice in considering the ramifications of legislation.

People trust him, too.

Barthel’s background led to others consulting him about law enforcement-related legislation. “I can at least lend a voice to give some direction.”

He trusts the process.

Barthel said that for a bill to make it all the way from the idea stage to the governor’s signature, the sheer number of hoops it must jump through can help ensure that the good makes it through and the bad falls away. “There are so many checks and balances along the way.”

There’s very little free time.

Amid committee meetings in the mornings, afternoon House sessions and evening social events, plus bills to examine in between, Barthel keeps busy.

“The media isn’t our enemy.”

Barthel sees value in building good relationships with the media. “That’s how you get your message out,” he said. Public reaction to reports can help lawmakers gauge what kind of support a bill has.

Lobbyists aren’t the enemy, either.

Going into the Legislature, Barthel said, he thought of lobbyists as “more a nuisance than anything.” Now, however, he recognizes them as experts in their field, even if he doesn’t always agree with their viewpoint. “I found them to be a great resource,” he said. “They’re certainly a key part of the whole process.”

The Ramkota Hotel makes a good home away from home.

While some legislators might rent a house together, “I didn’t want to have to scrub toilets and vacuum and dust,” Barthel said. Plus, when he’s tired from all of the busyness of the day, “it’s good to have some time to be by myself.” Added bonus: Many of the social events where he makes connections and learns more about issues happen at the Ramkota. “I eat a lot of chicken drummies and cheese squares.”

The drive to Pierre isn’t too bad.

Barthel may use the time to call his out-of-state parents for a lengthy, uninterrupted chat or listen to classic rock on satellite radio. “It’s just a good time to clear your head.”

Kristin Roers

Not everyone understood her desire to run.

“A few of my coworkers thought I was crazy because they’re all natural introverts, and I’m a total extrovert,” Roers said.

Running for office takes time.

Roers discovered that going through neighborhoods knocking on doors and talking to people required a lot of time. And most people didn’t want to talk. Fortunately, she said, “nobody was mean. Nobody at the door was rude.” She also attended groups’ special events to learn more about issues.

She has advice for aspiring legislators.

“No. 1, you don’t need to know everything. You just to have a passion to serve and to do better for your state and your community.” And second, regardless of whether your opponent takes campaigning seriously, you always must make the effort to connect with people in your district.

All in the family.

Roers joins two other family members from Fargo in the statehouse: Her uncle Jim is a state senator and his daughter, Shannon Roers Jones, serves in the House as caucus leader. “One of the biggest things my cousin Shannon has really encouraged is really focus on your percentage of talking vs. listening.”

She’s not starting off with an agenda.

Since Roers is new to the Legislature, her main focus this session will be on learning. In gathering with more seasoned lawmakers, “there’ll still be a little awe for just the sheer knowledge of what people can pull from their heads.”

Her background will be useful.

Roers anticipates that she can provide perspective and raise questions on health care-related issues that come up. One example is the AARP’s effort to pass the Caregiver Advise, Record, Enable (CARE) Act in all 50 states. The act aims to help family caregivers of patients leaving a hospital. Roers is concerned that the requirement to provide education to caregivers doesn’t take into account, for example, people who are homeless or have no family caregiver. She fears the hospital stays of some people could be extended because of it.

She’s not afraid of a challenge.

Roers already anticipates that one of her committees, Human Services, will be a heavy lift. It typically involves a lot of bills accompanied by a lot of heart-wrenching stories. And it’s not a popular choice for lawmakers. “Not a lot of people are like, ‘Yeah, sign me up for that,'” Roers said. From her background, she understands the hospital side of health care, but she looks forward to learning more about the human services part. Her overall goal is to work to improve the lives of patients without making it harder for workers.

Roers’ district includes Microsoft Corp., the mall and some countryside.

Roers serves the south side of Fargo in a district that would benefit most from a diversion to address flooding issues, an ongoing legislative issue. Her constituents range from an area of apartment dwellers to newer housing areas around Fargo’s newest high school.

She urges residents to share their opinion.

“Write an email, call the person, let them know if there’s a bill coming up, because there’s no other way to know what you’re thinking,” she said.

She’ll have plenty of podcast time.

Roers likes listening to podcast for long stretches in the car, such as several hours from Fargo to Bismarck. “I listen to everything from political podcasts to the crime ones,” she said. Radio Lab and More Perfect are two particular favorites.

More: Sanford Health to statehouse: Tale of 2 elected employees

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