“If you want to really cover the Legislature you’ve got to be there, and not just for opening day.” Susan Halas,
Sage advice from Susan Halas, who has been reporting on Hawaii politics since 1976, writing for a number of publications over the years. She is now a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch, and has her own public relations and communications company, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Her comment on my post about how to cover the legislature is absolutely correct and on point. I’m reprinting it here for those who don’t obsessively follow comments because it so accurately captures what’s necessary to do it right.
I was a young reporter in the 70s working for the Maui News. In those years my paper sent me to Oahu to attend the sessions. I learned to cover the legislature by actually going to the offices of our elected officials and getting to know them and their staff, and showing up often enough that they got to know me too. I also learned early on that most really important decisions were not decided on the floor or in committee but in much more informal settings like the Columbia Inn, a variety of nameless bars, or hoisting a few pau hana beers with the ILWU folks. Those decisions were just confirmed at the legislature.
We reporters were also expected to actually READ the legislation introduced by members of our Maui delegation, and tell the folks at home what was in the bills sponsored by our lawmakers and also provide the details of the other important legislation of the day.
Even though print journalism is effectively comatose in Hawaii, there is no substitute for legwork, personal contact and a wide net of off-the-record friends and sources.
Following the career of a legislator like Maui’s Joe Souki from his first public office as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1978 (where he resented the tag “Elmer’s (Cravalho’s) Boy” through his rise to Speaker of the House, to his fall at the hand of his own crew and his resurrection through dint of circumstance and perseverance, has been a fascinating close-up view of how political clout is wielded in our state. It’s all personal. We still do it face-to- face, one-on-one, and the most important skill a lawmaker can have, as Souki learned early on, is the ability to count.
No matter what the vibe, speed or reach of social media it is not yet where decision are made, though it is regrettably often where opinions are formed.
If you want to really cover the Legislature you’ve got to be there, and not just for opening day.
And that was how I felt when I walked away after covering the legislature for five years as executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, serving as the organization’s lobbyist, public spokesman, researcher and legislative analyst.
I felt at that time, and continue to feel, that to make a difference in the legislative process requires a full time presence and full attention. You have to be part of living in that small village of several hundred people who gather from January to May each year and somehow manage to pass legislation by the end of the period. Whether as a reporter, a community advocate, or a lobbyist, you’re facing the same job of learning how the system really works, finding sources you can trust, and then riding the beast through the rough parts of each year’s session.
In an organization, it isn’t necessary for each person to commit to a full-time presence at the legislature, as long as you’ve got someone in that position who can work the hallways and also guide others in applying outside political pressure via public opinion, mobilization of constituents, etc.
In another comment, Aaron suggested a crowdfunding project to support independent reporting at the legislature. As with any journalistic endeavor, though, that’s no simple project.
And so it goes. If the ideas float around for a while, maybe some will take hold and go somewhere.