"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Thursday, March 29, 2007

My Debut on the House Floor

I expected to make my debut address within an hour or so after my posting here on Tuesday. As it transpired, I had to wait a further 25 hours.

After lunch break we got caught up in lengthy debates--the bill to ban dog racing took up most of our afternoon.

Here's one of adopted greyhounds that greeted me on my way to Reps Hall.

And some pro-greyhound, anti-dog racing folks--plus a chihuahua. Dogs of other breeds showed up in support of their greyhound cousins!

They were far outnumbered by the people drawn there by our Judiciary bills. Most of the sign-carriers favored constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man-one woman, and opposed any civil union or similar legislation. They were loud and I heard they confronted legislators on their way in.

I took the above shot while sneaking around to the side door, concealed by shrubbery. The better part of Valour!

The dog racing bill failed, as did an amendment which I personally found very palatable.

Eventually we became mired in other bills from Environment & Agriculture, then knocked off a few Finance bills until we recessed at 7:10 p.m. The Chap had a nonprofit board Meeting, when he arrived at the Lodge shortly after we had a late dinner together. All night I continued editing and refining my speech, which I expected to be giving first thing on Wednesday.

Such was not the case. The remaining Finance bills passed on a voice vote. We picked up some Environmental and Agriculture bills we'd postponed from the previous day.

Just when Fish & Game was (finally) in the on-deck circle, a member rose to move special ordering of the extremely combustible resolution opposing the continuance of the Iraq War, which was way, way down our list in the State-Federal Relations & Veterans' Affairs section. In addition to requesting that the government bring our adventure in Iraq to a conclusion, it also demanded full funding of veterans benefits (medical and otherwise) and affirmed support of the troops.

The reason for moving the bill up: half-a-dozen uniformed soldiers from a National Guard unit that served in Iraq were present in the gallery. Opponents of the bill wanted us to act on it in their presence.

Needless to say, it was a protracted and very emotional debate, lasting hours. Ultimately the resolution passed, unamended and in its original form, pretty much on party lines. Then the minority rose in formal protest, with members marching to the well and making a verbal denunciation as they handed over a printed protest. (This was planned in advance, obviously.)

The resolution is non-binding, of course--our state can't really expect the Congress and the President to do or not do anything. It falls in the "send a message to Washington" category. And because so many in the majority party feel they won their seats as a protest vote against the war and the Administration, they wanted to assure their constituents of a shared view that an end is necessary sooner than later.

We broke for lunch, giving me even more time to polish my speech, and returned at 2:00.

Next in line--the one and only Fish & Game bill.

I stood with my Chairman against the wall next to the open windows--ah, that cool breeze--and waited for Madam Speaker to call on me. I assumed I would come early in the line-up. Two people spoke in favour of the legislation. Another committee member spoke against it. Surely I was next....

No. The primary sponsor came forward, carrying books, proof that we were in for a lengthy address. He has a very histrionic style, and in fact likes to give long history lessons in making his points. We heard about Louis XIV and Peter the Great. Brilliant and energetic in his oration, he's very controversial in his own right. And seems to relish it.

And waiting on the sidelines was little me, conscious of the fact that there's only one first time for anything. I knew my big moment at the microphone would be memorable only to me. I didn't want to blow it. I didn't think I would. I felt so ready, so prepared, that my only nervousness was the good kind--anticipatory rather than fearful. All weekend I had wrestled with the decision to speak at all. Once my mind was made up, I was determined to do my very best, to support my committee in their difficult but in my view, perfectly reasonable and correct decision. I looked forward to explaining it to my colleagues.

After the representative finished, the Speaker announced that there was one more speaker (who, at this point, could only be me). She also announced that there would be a roll call vote and would members please make their way to their seats.

I could practically hear the planets aligning for me. All those who had drifted out during the preceding rant and world history lesson entered the Hall as I began. The term "captive audience" comes to mind.

In taking on a task, I strive to do it well, and more important, do it effectively. I am fully satisfied that I met my own high standards.

I know this because even before the roll call vote, I got a "Good job!" from my Chairman.

I know this because the decision was 224-117 against the bill. That's based on my memory, I didn't write it down and the journal of the session hasn't been produced yet. It's a much broader margin than our committee dared to hope for.

I know this because afterwards, members from both parties, people I knew and complete strangers, political veterans, other freshmen, other committee chairs, approached me with compliments--which I believe were genuine. Or to say that they hadn't been sure how to vote and that I convinced them to vote "YES" (to kill the bill).

I know this because when I phoned the Chap later he told me he and his office mates were listening to the debate on the the live streaming audio over the Internet, and when I finished his co-workers burst into spontaneous applause. He wouldn't make that up.

Pretty heady stuff for an anonymous back-bencher freshman.

Was I surprised by success? Yes and no.

When I think of all the debates that happen in that chamber, the ramblings, the emotional appeals, the rhetoric, combined with the wide variety of speaking skills, I'm surprised that anyone could be much impressed by an individual address. Yet I know how deeply moved I was by the power of those speaking to issues far more weighty than mine--so I know it does happen.

But I was also equipped with a secret weapon not everyone possesses--my long experience using words. I mean, if after nearly an entire lifetime as a writer, I can't string together some sentences and craft paragraphs that will provoke a desired reaction, then something's wrong. If after a career on the stage and nearly two decades of public speaking and teaching, I don't conduct myself moderately well at a podium, something's even wrong-er.

I recognise my debut as a fleeting moment of personal glory during a long and continuing slog through extremely important legislation. I remind myself that the work is far more important and lasting than the workers or their words.

I remained buoyant as the hour grew later. We made it through only one of the controversial Judiciary bills before recessing at 7:15. Yesterday was our final deadline to act on bills, and after 2 very full days we hadn't got very far. Instead of staying till midnight or beyond, we voted to suspend rules so we could come back next week. One of these days we really will run out of time, and not escape at a reasonable hour.

The Chap had a Planning Board meeting last night, so it wasn't till 11:30 that we got to talk over my Debut.

I'm enjoying this very quiet Thursday, playing with the dogs, catching up with email. It's not especially warm, and terribly windy, but this morning I went outside to look for flowers.

In my front garden, I found these snowdrops!

I completed my brief garden tour (still clad in my bathrobe) and found Jewel and Ruth waiting expectantly at the gate to the big deck.

After days obsessing about Fish & Game matters, I was ready for Fun and Games. We played with the red ball till they were tired enough to let me sit at the computer without being interrupted by attacks of affection. Lola, the babysitter, seems glad I'm around. I think they've all missed me this week.

I know I've missed them.

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