NCSL Podcasts

The “Why” of Working for the Legislature | OAS Episode 185

Episode Summary

This is Legislative Staff Week 2023 at NCSL, and we sat down with two staffers to talk about why people come to work in the legislature and why they stay. Our guests are Anne Sappenfield, director of the Wisconsin Legislative Council and NCSL staff chair, and Heshani Wijemanne, assistant secretary of the California Senate. Sappenfield began working in the legislature in the mid-‘90s while Wijemanne has been a legislative staffer since 2016. Sappenfield and Wijemanne are both lawyers and they talked about why public service in the legislature was an attractive option after law school. They discussed the appeal of being involved in the legislative process, how things have changed in legislatures over the years and the challenge of explaining what they do to family and friends. They also talked about the challenges they faced during the pandemic and the critical role staff play in preserving the institution of the legislature.

Episode Notes

This is Legislative Staff Week 2023 at NCSL, and we sat down with two staffers to talk about why people come to work in the legislature and why they stay. 

Our guests are Anne Sappenfield, director of the Wisconsin Legislative Council and NCSL staff chair, and Heshani Wijemanne, assistant secretary of the California Senate. Sappenfield began working in the legislature in the mid-‘90s while Wijemanne has been a legislative staffer since 2016. 

Sappenfield and Wijemanne are both lawyers and they talked about why public service in the legislature was an attractive option after law school. They discussed the appeal of being involved in the legislative process, how things have changed in legislatures over the years and the challenge of explaining what they do to family and friends. 

They also talked about the challenges they faced during the pandemic and the critical role staff play in preserving the institution of the legislature.


Episode Transcription

Ed:      Hello and welcome to “Our American States,” a podcast from the National Conference of State Legislatures. This podcast is all about legislatures, the people in them, the policies, process and politics that shape them. I’m your host Ed Smith. 


AS:      For me it was the right choice, and it has been. It’s a career where things are always changing, and you are always learning.


Ed:      That was Anne Sappenfield, director of the Wisconsin Legislative Council and NCSL Staff Chair. I sat down with Anne and Heshani Wijemanne, assistant secretary of the California Senate to talk about why people work in state legislatures for this special Legislative Staff Week edition of the podcast. Anne and Heshani are both lawyers and they talked about why public service in the legislature was an attractive option after law school. They discussed the appeal of being involved in the legislative process, how things have changed in the legislatures over the years and the challenge of explaining what they do to family and friends.


            They also talked about the challenges they faced during the pandemic and the critical role staff played in preserving the institution of the legislature. Here is our discussion.


            Anne, Heshani, thanks for coming on the podcast.


AS:      Thank you for having us.


HW:    Thank you. I’m really excited to be here. 


Ed:      Well, we are talking today about legislative staff careers this being legislative staff week. And I’m hoping you two can share some insights from your own experience for others who might be interested in working in the legislature. So maybe first, why don’t you talk about your own path to working in the legislature and what your role is. Heshani why don’t you kick it off here.


HW:    Sure. So, I’m currently the assistant secretary of the California State Senate. My path started in Southern California where I grew up. Right after high school, I moved to the East Coast, and I spent most of my time there. I went to college over in Massachusetts. I studied government and international relations at Smith College in Massachusetts. And I then soon after college moved to New York. Still keeping out at the East Coast spots there. I worked for Mayor Bloomberg’s reelection campaign in 2009 and then I went off and worked for city hall for a little while in the Civic Engagement Unit for the Mayor’s Office, working on community service projects or the city and so forth. Finally decided to go to law school somewhere in there. Decided to go to Hofstra Law over on Long Island so I had to leave the city for that. During law school, I really enjoyed constitutional law classes, administrative law classes. But I always had kind of this inkling that I wasn’t necessarily going to be a conventional lawyer. I spent a lot of time my summers I worked for government agencies and entities. I worked on like city agencies to the taxi and limousine commission. I worked for New York State homes and community renewal. And I even did an externship, these were all externships and internships, but I even did like an externship during law school with the Federal Aviation Administration, which was really interesting. I would never have necessarily saw myself there, but it was an interesting experience, and you know I always kept myself busy during law school during high school even and college. In college, I interned with a U.S. senator. I actually got trained in conflict resolution. I mediated small claims and civil harassment cases. Like I was never idle. I was always kind of going for something that I might be interested in just to learn more, and I think that that helped me along my path kind of giving me like a process of elimination of what I was really looking for in you know a lifelong career maybe you know. 


            After law school, I went and despite all of my experiences in the public sector when reality kind of sank in, I went with the first opportunity that presented itself in the private sector. Prior to that, I think the only experience I had had in the private sector was one internship one summer with a well trust and estates firm. So, I went into the private sector and again I was there for almost two years. But at some point, I learned that life wasn’t for me, and New York wasn’t for me in the end. California was just far away. My family was far away, and New York is very far from California so as I was approaching 30, I kind of decided, you know, what I’ve got to go back now or I’m never going to do it. And I left everything in New York, everything I had kind of built there and decided to go back with nothing. I didn’t necessarily have an idea of what I was going to do when I went back to California other than kind of start studying for the bar exam there because I had done New York, but now I had to get California under my belt. 


            So, once I moved to California, I started looking for public sector jobs again because you know I really wanted to go back into that public service. I just felt like that’s where I could do the most and with what I’ve learned over the years and contribute to the community. Once I moved back to California, I started applying for jobs in the public sector. I think there was some non-profits in there as well, but I noticed that I was homing in on the legislature in terms of what I was looking to do. I came across a posting for the Secretary of the Senate’s office in their Engrossing and Enrolling Office as the chief assistant engrossing and enrolling clerk. Based on the job posting, I thought it would be a really unique way to use my skills that I had learned over the years you know between law school and my work experiences. It would be a uniquely beneficial way to kind of contribute to the public sector and I applied for the job, and I was lucky enough to get it so here I am. Once I was chief assistant engrossing enrolling clerk, I eventually became the engrossing enrolling clerk and supervised that office for some time before I was lucky enough to be brought on as the assistant secretary of the Senate.


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Ed:      Anne, how about you?  How was your path to legislature?  What brought you to your role now?


AS:      Well like Heshani I went to law school and during law school. I went to law school to work on maybe policy work or for a nonprofit and it just felt like while I was there there was such a focus on working in a private firm or having a judicial clerkship, so I was feeling kind of confused about my next steps. And this job was just advertised so I worked for the legislative council which in Wisconsin staffs all of the standing committees and so we each develop expertise on the area that the standing committee covers. What appealed to me about the job was that idea of developing expertise in two or three policy areas and being able to sort of be the expert and talk to legislators about how things work and problem solving for legislation. 


            I started out as a staff attorney at the Legislative Council right out of law school and then I worked here for about 20 years. And then I went to our Legislative Audit Bureau as their general counsel and had some experience with supervising staff. And then was fortunate enough to be appointed director four years ago to the Legislative Council. 


Ed:      When you look at your cohorts the people you went to law school with, maybe you keep in touch with, what are your thoughts now about that?  Do you feel like law school was the right and then going into public service was not only something worth doing and good for society, but something that you found intellectually stimulating and satisfying?  How about you Anne?


AS:      For me, it was the right choice, and it has been. It’s a career where things are always changing, and you are always learning. So, you always hear the story of the attorney who focuses on one part of the tax code for their entire career, or you know really has to specialize so much. And part of the beauty of working for legislature is that at least in our agency, we can change topic areas if we get maybe burned out on a topic area or interested in learning something new. So, the aspect of just continually learning and being at the forefront of laws being made makes it a really interesting legal career.


Ed:      And Heshani, how about for you?  You are a little earlier in your career. I don’t know that you’ve made the decision to spend your entire career in the legislature and you don’t have to commit to that right now on this podcast. But I just, I just wonder what you think at this point.


HW:    I think it’s been a pretty fantastic decision. You know I, at sometimes I wonder, and you know interns will ask you know do you think it is a good idea to go to law school before coming and working for the legislature or whatever you know leg director or leg aide. You know in retrospect I think you can do certain things with going and getting a masters maybe you know or some sort of advanced education. But I think law school gave me a different way of thinking about things and reading between the lines that I don’t think that I would have gotten anywhere else, and I think that it has uniquely positioned me in this position which is not even you know my title has nothing to do with being an attorney or a lawyer or anything. Being able to read the rules and understand statute and to apply them to situations in given situations, I definitely think law school and having that legal education has tailored me pretty well for this role. And I think that it was extremely valuable for this position as well. 


Ed:      Well, Heshani let me stick with you for just a minute. The work environment in legislature has certainly changed over the years. I mean we can go back to the ’70s and the professionalization of legislative staff and that kind of thing. But things have changed even in more recent years, and I wonder in your period in the California legislature what have you seen that has changed?


HW:    For me for this you know, seven years, it’s been quite stable. I think that newer generations coming in, you see relationships and dynamics changing a little bit more. I think that there is a little bit more communication for example via email as opposed to phone call or in person sometimes and I think that has changed even more since the pandemic and you know having to resort to Zoom or through email and sending things electronically. That’s changed a little bit. And I wouldn’t say for the worse, but it has definitely changed things quite changed the dynamic a bit within the building. And you know knowing people’s faces. I mean we’ve just recently all come back to work from having worked remotely during the pandemic and it’s nice to put faces to names and get to know people and to actually feel the paper document coming across the desk and introducing something. I think that’s maybe one of the primary changes I’ve seen in the short time that I’ve been here. 


Ed:      Anne how about for you?  You’ve got a little longer tenure and I’m thinking also in terms of generational change. Different generations have you know bring different attitudes and different approaches to things so how about for you?  What kind of change have you seen?


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AS:      Well certainly technology has been a huge change. I started in 1994 and we didn’t use email or do electronic research. That’s hard to believe right now. I can’t even remember how I actually did it. But we everything was by paper and so it was a much more labor-intensive practice to try to figure out a legislative history or to figure out the case law on a specific issue. So that’s been a huge very good change. The legislature has become more professional over time. We have an HR office now. We have much more formal IT support. And generally, I think that the idea of the legislature as an employer has evolved over time in Wisconsin. We have a lot of personal staff and we’ve definitely professionalized those roles a great deal. 


            Employees today certainly want more flexibility. In the past, we were pretty 8 to 5 every day not really giving it much thought. And so that’s been something as a director that I’ve had to be responsive to and adjust to. I think it’s a good change, but again it is different than it was when we first started. 


Ed:      Thanks Anne. We will be back with the rest of our conversation after this short break.


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            Let me ask you about big disruptions in the workplace and one of the interesting things at legislatures is when big things happen whether they are a natural disaster or whatever, people in the public sphere have to get involved and be responsive quickly. Anne, I know that about a decade ago, you went through a pretty tumultuous period in Wisconsin when the governor sought and I successfully to change the way their public service unions are handled. There were the big protests in the capital and an enormous amount of attention was paid. And then of course COVID came along, and I just wonder how do you think legislative staff handled those things as you witnessed it?  Was it sort of keep calm and carry on?


AS:      It really was. The protests were surprising. You know we had tens of thousands of people at the capital for a few weeks. And the capital people were staying in the capital. People were sleeping over in the capital. They were people in the capital all of the time. And so, in some ways, it was a slow time because the legislature really couldn’t meet, and committees couldn’t meet very readily because it was loud, and it was like you said it was a very disruptive atmosphere to be in. But then some big question would come down, but democratic caucus in the senate left the state and so a lot of novel questions came up that our office was asked to respond to. So, it was sort of sometimes I joke that was like the most boring exciting time I’ve ever had because the work really slowed down. We are across the street, so we weren’t in the mix in our offices. But then all of a sudden there would be a question that was really urgent and really big and novel, and we had to scramble to answer that question.


Ed:      So Heshani in the time you’ve been there which is not that long, you nonetheless managed to encounter the COVID pandemic which disrupted everyone’s life and certainly disrupted and made the running a legislature very challenging. What did you observe with your legislative staff colleagues?  How did they handle that? 


HW:    It was an interesting time. It was a very almost a blur now the last couple of years trying to get through all of that. But it was really a collaboration. I think everyone working together and figuring out how we are going to get this done and how we are going to get the business done. Trying to figure out how we are going to get that remote participation of members if they can’t make it. Or how staff is going to work remotely and how they are going to how we are going to take like we discussed really paper driven processes and make some of it electronic so that it can be done with the staff from home and then just a few of us here in the building. Everyone kind of put their heads together and made things work you know. We had to modify things a little bit to get it done and interestingly enough, you know, now you know people are back, but we’ve definitely kept some of those practices in place because it promoted efficiency, organization usually things are more easily accessible. And I think we’re you know in a way we’re just stronger as an institution. I think that should something like this ever happen again, we are prepared. We will be able to figure it out. It was quite the collaboration and could not have been done without everyone’s input and you know a lot of trial and error. Sometimes lucky guesses in getting it done. 


Ed:      Go ahead Anne.


AS:      I would add that there were really novel legal issues that can’t up with all of the emergency orders and the closing businesses that we were busy. We were right in the mix of it so at that time when you are dealing with the pandemic yourself and what all that brings along with learning how to work remotely and learning how to supervise staff remotely, we were also working on really hard legal questions with tight deadlines. So, it was a very busy time and staff really rose to the occasion.


Ed:      Well, I think I started podcasting the day the pandemic started for NCSL, so I ended up talking to you know a tremendous number of people and legislators around the country and I was just amazed by how agile legislatures turned out to be. Not the first word that might come to mind for a lot of people observing state legislatures, but I thought it was remarkable in so many different spheres the way that legislatures were able to adapt and continue on with their business and deal with the very real emergency that they were confronted with.


            Let me ask you Heshani, a lot of times people have no idea what legislative staff do. How about you?  Do you find people in your family or friends are like well what do you do exactly?


HW:    Oh definitely. I you know when I first joined the engrossing and enrolling office those terms were completely foreign to any even me going into the office, I didn’t entirely understand what that process was and what it entailed. To this day, my parents and my family and friends, they still don’t completely understand what any of it meant what I did there. People are starting to understand a little bit more as I’ve you know become the assistant secretary. It’s one of those things that I think people forget you know I’m in a nonpartisan office right. And when they think of legislature, they think that it’s partisan. You know you are talking about parties and caucuses and that’s not exactly what I’m doing here. And I think another misconception would be I’m not impacting legislation. I’m not working on the substance of the legislation. I’m facilitating the process. I’m making sure that things are done in a correct way. I’m interpreting the rules and making sure that the floor process goes well. And I think that unless it becomes controversial somehow, people don’t really know about that. I think my family and friends try their best to understand and I do my best to try and explain. It comes to a communication game, but yes, I do find that to be the case unless you are in this world. It’s a very unique world.


Ed:      So, Anne what’s your experience been?  Does everybody know what you do now in your family?


AS:      No, they don’t. I think it’s partially just an unfamiliarity with the legislative process. It is sort of something that you learn so well when you are in the midst of it, but most people don’t learn about the process. And then since I’m committee staff, I find you know by the time I go through like how a bill becomes a law, I’ve pretty much said enough to move on to a different topic of conversation. And another thing, I think being an attorney, people think I tell the legislators what to do. Like what the right policy is and how they should handle things and that isn’t the case. My job is to provide information and advice based on that information. So sometimes will tell me you know they have to tell the legislators that they should do “X,” “Y” and “Z” and it’s hard to explain that that is not my role either. 


Ed:      I think Heshani your comment about people not understanding that there is this very large group of people who are nonpartisan who work in legislatures and how critical that is, I think people just don’t have that understanding that there is a whole quatre of people who are there for public service and it can be tough to get that across.


HW:    I’d like to point out too, I mean there are members and staff come and go, but we are here. We are the institution. You know we are the institutional knowledge that stays and needs to be here to maintain that institution. That’s another point I like to make to people to help them understand a little bit more about what it is we do. 


Ed:      Such a great point about the importance of preserving the institution, honoring the institution. Anne, let me ask you. This is that old what do you wish you knew when you started down this path question. What would you tell your 20-year-old self from the perspective you have now?


AS:      I would have told myself that I could really grow and learn a lot in this profession. I don’t think I appreciated that when I first started. And when you first try the legislature, it’s so overwhelming. There is so much like we were talking about you are not familiar with all the process and all of the traditions and the rules and how things work and so when you are a new staffer, I think you are just trying not to do anything wrong. And knowing that as you grow in the profession that you really do contribute so much to the institution and to your colleagues and grow as a professional in so many ways. 


Ed:      And Hershani how about for you. What would you tell your 20-year-old self?


HW:    I think I would have maybe told her to be a little bit even more curious than I was. Maybe you know I’d try some different things while I was out there to learn from my experiences. I think I was very honed in on one subject and geared towards one thing steering my path and maybe tried a couple of other things just to see what else is out there and just gained a little more perspective. Also, I think being curious with the mentors and the colleagues that I have you know worked with in the past and asked questions about them and kind of what you were saying. We were talking about institutional knowledge, I think even starting in this position, I wish I had as people were retiring and moving on to other positions, I think that learning the context of learning why we do what we do, and you know the natural progression of things would have been good. I think I don’t have the benefit of having been here at a younger age so having been able to take that opportunity to ask those that were on their way out you know about their experiences and why things are done a certain way. I think that is an extremely valuable thing to have and it’s something that I definitely do now. 


Ed:      Yeah, we all have to live a while before we maybe appreciate the wisdom of some of the folks who came before us. As we wrap up here Heshani, I wonder words of wisdom, advice you’d like to share with your colleagues around the country?


HW:    I think being curious. Asking questions. Not assuming. Don’t assume things. And listen. And again, I think being communicative and whatever that means to you. Whether it’s picking up the phone and calling. Sending an email. Being communicative.


Ed:      Great. And Anne you get the last word. What would your advice or words of wisdom be with for your colleagues around the country?


AS:      In a legislature, change is constant. We are always getting new members. There are always new policies coming through. Different things happening. Just in the state and nationally so being able to recognize the traditions at the legislature and that some things stay the same, but also being open to that to things constantly changing and having to really adjust your approach and adjust your perspective as change occurs.


Ed:      Heshani and Anne, I want to thank you both. I always love these conversations with legislative staffers. I just find it very akin to my own experience, so I guess that’s probably why. But thank you both and take care.


AS:      Thank you so much.


HW:    Thank you. 


Ed:      I’ve been talking with Anne Sappenfield of Wisconsin and Heshani Wijemanne from California about working in the legislature. Thanks for listening. 


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You can check out all the podcasts from the National Conference of State Legislatures by searching for NCSL podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. Tim Storey, NCSL’s CEO, hosts “Legislatures:  The Inside Storey” where he focuses on leadership and legislatures. The “Our American States” podcast dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislators. On “Across the Aisle” host Kelley Griffin tells stories of bipartisanship. Also check out our special series “Building Democracy” on the history of legislatures.