With the campaign season over, it is time for freshman lawmakers to get the keys to their offices, find their seats in the chamber and figure out what to do next.
For two freshmen from Richland County — Republican Kirkman Finlay and Democrat Beth Bernstein — that means supporting ethics and election reforms while proceeding with caution as legislators return today for the opening of the 2013 session.
Finlay, a former Columbia city councilman and unsuccessful 2010 mayoral candidate, has a few bills in the works, including a plan to strengthen stalking penalties for repeat offenders. It is a problem some of his employees have brought to his attention and one that will help “very few” but “very intensely.”
The commercial farmer and restaurateur also is working on a bill to revive native quail and another to change the definition of “baiting” to help turkey hunters.
But Finlay says preventing the long lines, lost ballots and management dysfunction associated with Richland County’s Election Day debacle is a top priority.
“I can’t think of a fundamental right that was infringed upon that dramatically across that number of people in recent times,” Finlay said.
Having 250 candidates tossed off 2012 ballots for improperly filing paperwork was just as serious a problem, he said. “Everybody who could have (resolved the problem) stepped back, and said, ‘We’re not touching it.’ ”
The two issues have received such broad attention, Finlay won’t need to drive the reform effort.
Finlay expects a learning curve. The newness of being a House freshman means “you don’t know what’s normal, what’s different,” he said.
And there are consequences for mistakes, he said. “(Y)ou better understand what you’re doing. ... If you stand up at the well, and you don’t know what you’re talking about and look like a fool, nobody’s going to help you.”
“That was good advice,” said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland. “Don’t just get up to hear yourself speak. Too many times, we get up for people to score political points,” instead of advancing debate productively.
Finlay will share a desk in the House with Bernstein, another Richland County freshman, but from across the aisle.
For advice, Democrat Bernstein, a Columbia attorney who has never held public office, looks to state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who served three terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2004. Lourie has encouraged her to be an “independent voice,” Bernstein said.
Both Ballentine and Lourie advise freshmen not to succumb to pressure to remain quiet and observe.
“There are some old-timers who think freshmen are like children, and they should be seen and not heard, but I don’t believe that,” Lourie said, adding freshmen’s votes count as much as “a seasoned veteran.”
‘It would be naive’
Asked what she hopes to accomplish when lawmakers go back to work today, Bernstein said “restore confidence and trust” in voters’ elected leaders.
Ethics reform is at the top of Bernstein’s agenda, as it was during her contentious campaign for District 78 against a four-term incumbent, Republican Joan Brady, a member of the House Ethics Committee.
Bernstein’s priority is eliminating powerful leadership political action committees, like one affiliated with House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, which donated money to Ethics Committee members, including her fall opponent. Increasing transparency in campaign finance and creating rules on who can donate to lawmakers while they are in session, to curb conflicts of interest, are some of her other goals.
But learning the ropes through observing comes first, Bernstein said.
“It would be naive of me to go up there and introduce (legislation) for reading,” she said. “I’m a freshman Democrat who beat an eight-year incumbent in a Republican majority (House). I want to go in there and be able to work with people.”
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.