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State Legislator Listening Benefits LGBT Issues, Study Says

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The Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne.
The Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne.

New research suggests that when state legislators spend more time listening to their constituents, more marriage equality legislation is likely.

An article in the March edition of State Politics and Policy Quarterly by Rebekah Herrick, a political science professor at Oklahoma State University, says that lawmakers who conduct regular outreach to constituents are more likely to introduce legislation benefiting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population.

"Most Americans want hate crimes protections and anti-discrimination laws," Herrick told The Huffington Post. "Some of it has to do with state legislators lagging behind the times."

Herrick uses the journal article to argue that listening to constituents is needed to provide more effective representation. Among Herrick's general conclusions: longer-serving legislators are more likely to listen to their constituents and women legislators are better at listening.

Some legislators said that while constituent interaction helps, their experiences are not consistent with Herrick's findings. Wyoming state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), a fifth-term moderate Republican who has taken the lead on LGBT equality issues in the state, said that support for equality and other social issues is not reliant on constituent interaction but rather on seniority. He said most of his colleagues became more socially liberal and fiscally conservative the longer they stayed in the Legislature. He attributes this to being more politically confident or more willing to take a risk.

"They realize they can vote for it and not lose, or they get tired of running and are willing," Zwonitzer said. Wyoming lawmakers voted down domestic partnership legislation this year.

Outside of social issues, Zwonitzer said that Wyoming's two-month annual legislative session makes it tough to interact with constituents. During the session, he and other lawmakers are more likely to rely on each other's expertise -- or groups in the Capitol -- to understand the details of legislation.

Zwonitzer noted he talks to constituents when the Legislature is not in session, but most of that interaction focuses on smaller-scale issues.

Kansas state Rep. Stephanie Sawyer Clayton (R-Overland Park), a first-term moderate Republican, said she routinely interacts with her constituents and finds that the feedback she's hearing helps confirm her research on legislation.

"Good constituent communication is important and it gives me the opportunity to gauge their views," she said. "Nine times out of 10 they reinforce my research."

Clayton noted she approaches being a lawmaker as a "customer service job" and wants to share her viewpoints. She is known for her tweeting about legislative proceedings. "You are there doing the job for them," she said. "You are not disappearing into the alternative vortex that is Topeka; you have to have a foot in the district. It is how I get back to reality."

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