Patricia Sloop, a retired clinical social worker, never planned to be a politician. But now she is one.
Monday, she will take a seat in the Kansas House as a Democrat representing District 88, which covers parts of southeast Wichita.
The novice legislator has been getting plenty of advice.
“Several people have said, just enjoy it. It takes you two years to find out where the restrooms are, so just do the best you can do,” she said.
She has been preparing for the job since the November election, and she can’t wait to get going.
“It’s like a runner,” Sloop said. “You prepare and you prepare and you prepare, and you just want to get started.”
Republican Dan Hawkins, a new representative from District 100 in west Wichita, is just as enthusiastic.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “I know you can’t go up there and change things overnight, but I hope we make our mark.”
They will be among the largest influx of legislative newcomers in more than four decades when the 2013 session opens Monday. The huge freshman class was created in part by three federal judges redrawing the state’s political boundaries in June. State senators are elected to a four-year term; House members to two years.
The 40-member Senate will welcome 16 newcomers, and 14 are in the GOP, giving Republicans a 32-8 majority. The House will welcome 49 new members of which 40 are Republicans. That will give the GOP a 92-33 majority.
And each chamber’s freshman class is dominated by conservative Republicans.
Although she is a Democrat, Sloop begins the session with optimism.
“I have had such a good reception from the members of both parties that you just hope it continues when you get up there,” she said. “Both parties have been very welcoming and pleasant and easy to deal with.”
Rep. Ward Cassidy, R-St. Francis, who was first elected to the House in 2010, said he can relate to incoming lawmakers. He joked that many of them can easily get lost in the ever-changing layout of the Capitol’s basement. If someone makes it to their committees and to the House floor on time, that’s a small victory, he said.
Gov. Sam Brownback offered some advice on how new legislators should approach the job when he spoke to a group of lobbyists and conservative lawmakers in December. He asked how many newly elected people were in the audience. A bunch of hands shot up, and Brownback applauded their victories before urging caution.
“One of the key things to do is to not overplay your hand,” he said.
He recommended that they get public discussions started before launching untested ideas.
“You don’t just say we won the election, we got the votes, ram it,” he said. “That’s a short-term view of the world.”
Cassidy said many lawmakers try to make a name for themselves early on by going to the well, where House members address their colleagues, and pontificating. People who make lengthy statements on every bill are quickly ignored, he said.
“The best advice I’ve had, and it stands so true, is that you are much better off listening and asking questions,” Cassidy said. “I think you can get ahead a lot faster that way.”
Newcomer Michael O’Donnell, a former Wichita City Council member, plans an aggressive approach.
“I believe the residents of my district sent me up there to be active and fully engaged in the process,” he said. “I’m not under the illusion I’m going to be able to fulfill every issue that I would like to in the first year, but I definitely want to get the groundwork started on some of the issues I campaigned on. Those are shared by many in Topeka.”
O’Donnell will be among seven new senators on the 11-member Ways and Means Committee, which writes the state’s budget. He will be one of three committee members who have never served in the Legislature before.
Anthony Hensley, a longtime Senate Democrat, predicted that the Senate budget committee’s Republicans will be “yes men” for Brownback’s proposals.
“I think they’ll do whatever Sam Brownback tells them to do,” Hensley said. “I don’t think there will be a lot of questions.”
But O’Donnell said it is laughable to think that Brownback is going to be able to get whatever he wants.
“Mrs. Brownback doesn’t agree with her husband 100 percent of the time,” O’Donnell said. “We shouldn’t expect the Legislature to agree with him more often than his wife does.”
The new Republican lawmakers said that although they’re likely to embrace Brownback’s goals, they’ll show a lot of independence in haggling over the details.
“I’m pretty much an independent thinker,” Hawkins said. “I’m going to be one that asks questions. I don’t even know the governor. I’ve met him once.”
With so many new members in the Legislature, Hawkins said, he doesn’t think that it’s going to be as easy as people think for Brownback to push through his plans.
“Quite frankly,” Hawkins said, “I think it’ll be like herding cats.”
Educating new members about issues is a task for veteran lawmakers. This year, Cassidy is the new chairman of the Education Budget Committee and vice chairman of the Education Committee. One of the first things his Education Budget Committee will do is get a lengthy lesson in how the state’s current education finance formula works.
“Most legislators don’t have a clue what’s in that formula,” he said. “We need a better understanding before we start making changes.”
Hawkins, an employee-benefits insurance consultant who will join the committees on health and human services, financial institutions, children and seniors, and pension and benefits, understands that as a novice he faces a steep learning curve in Topeka.
“I’ve been in business a good share of my working life, but government is a whole different animal and I’ve got to learn as fast as I can how it all works and how to move legislation,” he said. “I kind of thrive on that, though. I like new things, I like new challenges. This is an awesome opportunity. I can’t wait.”
Sloop, who will join the committees on health and human services, taxation, and energy and environment, said that as a Democrat she has no illusions about making big strides.
“But I do hope that my voice, a voice of reason, a voice of someone who has worked with people all my life, will have some bearing on things being discussed. I hope I can make a difference, and if not, at least make a squeak about it.”
Contributing: Brent Wistrom of The Eagle; Associated Press