April 19, 2023
What two freshman legislators say about serving
Emmery Mehlhoff visited with Senator Judy Estenson and Representative Karen Anderson, freshmen in the North Dakota Legislature, and long-time Farm Bureau members. Sen. Estenson and Rep. Anderson reflect on their first session and what they have learned about the process. Here is an excerpt of their thoughts on our government. The following has been edited for clarity.
Emmery: You don't hear many positive comments about our government out in the countryside. There is a lot of frustration towards our national government and it seeps over to our state government. Now that you're kind of reaching the end of your first session here, do you have any new insights on the process and what your colleagues are like?
Sen. Estenson: I have found my fellow legislators are way smarter than what is perceived by the general public. I've gained nothing but respect for the people that are here. It's frustrating when the news media sometimes twists stories to make us look stupid. President Trump used to say “fake news”, and since I've been here, I'd like to say the same thing. It has made me recognize how frustrating it is to be here and have such disparaging comments made about the people who are here.
Rep. Anderson: I think we do get a bad rap for being down here. It's hard to make the right choices sometimes but you just go with what you believe is right, you learn a lot, and experience down the road will make you a better legislator.
Emmery: What do you think it takes to be an effective legislator? How do you stand up for your principles but not be the lone person who can't seem to get any of their issues pushed through?
Sen. Estenson: I'm not exactly sure if I've mastered that one yet but I promised myself I would come in and be as true to myself and my values as I could possibly be. When I make a vote, it isn't to make people happy with me. It is because that's what I think is the best solution for North Dakota. I don’t love that I have to get a lot of emails that are less than pleasant, but I'm not afraid of them because I'm not in this to just be reelected.
Rep. Anderson: Part of being a good legislator is listening and asking a lot of questions from your other fellow legislators. Anyone who's been here for one session has a lot to offer, and they're so happy to give advice and help you out.
We have so many bills, over 900 this session, that we possibly can't know everything about all of them. So you stick to your committees and what you know about that. You have to rely on the departments and those who come to testify, and you have to be able to trust your fellow legislators. That’s how you get through it. There's always someone who will not be happy with the way you vote, because there's a yes and there's a no.
Emmery: Let's talk a little bit more about things that maybe have been unexpected, whether pleasant or unpleasant, in both of your chambers.
Sen. Estenson: It's the conversation that happens on the Senate Floor that is really amazing. Today we had a very controversial bill and we did an hour on the floor and the debate was nothing but respectful to each speaker who shared their ideas. I think the most positive thing I can say about being part of the Senate is the respectful way with which we treat each other and our diversity of thought. That part has been very pleasant and nice to see.
Rep. Anderson: I would have to agree with Judy. Not everyone agrees, but generally everyone is respectful to each other. The best thing is that you can go to another legislator and talk to them about a bill and disagree and you can walk away still friends. We're not here to fight. We're just here to work for the people of North Dakota and do what's best for them, for our families. I think that's the most important.
We can go to our leadership and they respect us, they listen to us, and then we have to listen to what everything else is said. I think that goes a long way with having a lot of respect, whether it's in your own political party or another political party. I think it just really is that way up here, and people might not think it's that way, but it really is.
Sen. Estenson: I also thought things would be simpler. I would come into committee sometimes and think, oh, these bills should be really easy because I already think I know where I stand on this. And then there's the other side of the story, and then you hear the opposition testimony, and now you are like a judge and a jury, you're trying to weigh the facts and come up with the best conclusion. Sometimes it's easier than others.
Sometimes, believe it or not, we are very much in this neutral position of sorting through the facts. It's difficult because you want to do the right thing to make the right choices for the state of North Dakota. It's not about my preference when I'm here. It's about what I really, truly believe is the best. It's more complicated and it's not as simple as it would sometimes appear.
Rep. Anderson: I've also been just a little bit disappointed about the small number of people who have contacted me about votes. And then I think, well, people elected me and they know that I have conservative values and that's why I got elected, and that's how I will vote unless you tell me otherwise.
Emmery: Thank you both for taking time out of your busy schedules to visit with me.
Rep. Anderson: Thank you, Emmery.
Sen. Estenson: Thanks, Emmery. It was a pleasure.
To hear the full interview, visit our Straight Talk with NDFB page.