State Lawmakers Get How-To Advice

State legislators are taking classes at a Washington, D.C. think tank's leadership institute to learn how to implement the ideas that attracted them to government in the first place.

The institute shows first- and second-term legislators how to hold onto their value system as they go through the nitty-gritty of legislative process.

"In all the political give-and-take, some people forget why they ran for office, forget about their constituents, and it becomes more about personal power, "said Colorado Rep. Alice Madden, one of 35 participants at this year's Flemming Fellows Leadership Institute, a bipartisan program run by the unabashedly progressive, nonpartisan Center for Policy Alternatives. .

The 26-year-old Center, supported by foundations, unions, and corporations, serves state legislators and state policy organizations by developing policy briefs, talking points, and legislative models.

Founded in 1994, the Flemming program helps lawmakers think about what makes them tick the deeply-held beliefs that motivate their priorities. They then tackle the ultimate challenge: how to create a budget that covers their priorities without raising taxes.

Setting up an imaginary government called the state of Flemming, legislators play out roles in creating a budget. In the process, they find out more about government and about themselves.

"The most memorable was how defensive I got when somebody was very aggressive and put me on the spot. My back was against the wall immediately, even though it was all pretend," said Madden, D-Boulder, who portrayed a powerful committee chairwoman in the make-believe state of Flemming.

Before the role-playing game, the lawmakers' first class assignment was to cut up magazines to create a collage depicting their values.

"Here you are, wearing a nice suit, professional, and you're on the floor with scissors, and you're swapping a picture of an automobile for a piece of pie," said Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson.

In another session, lawmakers played a card game without speaking. Relying only on non-verbal cues, groups of lawmakers eventually realized they had been given different sets of game rules than their opponents.

Arizona Rep. Linda Binder, R-Lake Havasu City, said the card game taught her about nonverbal communication and about how to achieve her goals in budget negotiations.

"Do we value education? Do we value healthcare? If you value it, then you've got to try to fund it and try not to make the cuts," Binder said.

The institute-- taught by think tank staff and current legislators who are former Flemming fellows-- encouraged finding ways of "bringing your values to work," Colorado's Madden said.

Several lawmakers said the Flemming Institute, which met for a long weekend in New Orleans this winter and again near Washington, D.C. last month, was their first chance to "talk policy" since being sworn in.

"I've talked strategy, I've talked tactics, I've talked legislation, but never once policy," said Montana Sen. Jim Elliott, D-Missoula County, who was elected to the House in 1989 and the Senate in 2000. "What the Flemming Fellows Institute did for me was to help me find ways to formulate policy based on values that most people share, based on common values. What I learned about leadership was that a good leader knows how to formulate policy and bring people together."

Florida Rep. Edward Jennings, D-Gainesville, said the institute helped him do his job better and develop a strategy for the legislative goal he achieved this year: funding six pilot projects addressing the digital divide, the chasm of Internet access between haves- and have-nots.

"The institute helped me look at how to approach other members of the legislature from across the aisle," Jennings said. "And how to approach it in a way that would embrace bipartisan support versus coming at it from just my own political bent."