Official Magazine of the Denver Bar Association

From Lawyer to Legislator

 

So many from our noble profession throw their hats in the ring and run for political office. With more than one-third of the 114th U.S. Congress comprised of lawyers, I think it is safe to say that we dominate politics as a profession. But it is for good reason. After all, we have been trained in the law and public policy in our classrooms and courtrooms. It makes sense that large swaths of us aim to give back to the community and participate in the lawmaking process. I am sure that many readers are considering an entrance into politics in the future, and so I want to provide a framework for transitioning from the courthouse to the Capitol as experienced by one of our own.

Beth---lawyer-to-legislatorI recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Colorado House District 8 Representative Beth McCann to talk about her transition from the practice of law to the political world.

A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, Representative McCann started her legal career as a U.S. District Court clerk. Later, McCann served as a chief deputy in the Denver District Attorney’s Office. McCann was Denver’s Manager of Public Safety under Mayor Wellington Webb, and she has served in various roles in the Attorney General’s Office. McCann also worked in private practice as a partner for the firm of Cooper and Kelley. McCann has been an active leader in the Colorado Women’s Bar Association (of which she is a founder), the Denver Bar Association, and the Colorado Bar Association.

“I’ve always been interested in public policy,” McCann recalls. It just made sense for her to run in the 2008 election, and she has loved serving her constituents ever since.

On the downside, McCann laments the fundraising pressure that is a reality of modern politics. McCann raised about $90,000 in her first election, spending all but about $15,000 of that, which she can carry over into subsequent elections under specific rules. “Some of my colleagues in tough races have raised over $125,000,” McCann notes. That is some substantial fundraising for what amounts to a local race for the State House.

McCann advises those who are interested in running for office in the future to “build a network of fundraisers and consultants” now—those team members will ultimately be crucial to your success as a political candidate.

McCann also recommends that future candidates get involved in the political process now, even if only by attending meetings. For example, District 8, which covers most of central Denver, holds district meetings once a month on Saturdays at the Ford-Warren library in Whittier. McCann further advises those interested to “volunteer with a campaign of someone you admire.” You might start by simply knocking on doors for a candidate, but later advance into a position of volunteer coordinator or fundraiser. “Political candidates are always looking for passionate volunteers,” reminds McCann.

McCann also advises entry into politics at the lowest levels such as school board or city council positions. Aspiring leaders can learn the process in a less competitive environment before pursuing a General Assembly run.

As far as comparing the practice of law to politics, McCann says it is “a whole different atmosphere.” McCann tells how she initially struggled with the breadth of issues coming before her as a legislator. From healthcare to criminal justice and consumer protection to environmental regulation, it is nearly impossible to be an expert in the variety of fields regulated by the General Assembly. This breadth deeply contrasts with the laser focus required of a trial lawyer, where knowing the facts and law of the case with precision is essential.

A legislator has to rely on staff, legislative counsel, and even lobbyists to weigh in on important issues before she decides how to vote.

McCann is also quick to note that the rewards come with a lot of hard work and very little pay. House members in Colorado earn a $30,000 stipend for each legislative session lasting from January to May. Each member is expected to participate on at least one committee, with most members sitting on two or three. Work days are typically long with meetings and votes at the Capitol all day and banquets and fundraising events later into the night. The position of legislator is sought for the public service, not for the money.

However, this hard work only inspires McCann. Her love of public service persists with her recent announcement that she will run for Denver District Attorney in 2016.

Representative McCann has graciously offered to speak with anyone who has further interest in running for political office. She may be reached at beth.mccann.house@state.co.us.

K-Lewis-headshot(2)By Keith Lewis, an attorney in Denver. He can be reached at Keith@FreelanceLegalCounsel.com.

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