What kind of experience does it take?

The previous discussion about Shyam Reddy brought up an interesting question that I have debated with other folks in politics for a number of years:  What kind of experience is best for candidates and elected officials? 

Specifically, I am referring to candidates’/officials’ experience prior to holding the office they currently hold or are running for.  More specifically, I mean is it better to have a law background, which has been the traditional background of most lawmakers in the past; or, does a business background prove to be more effective?  Also, today we are seeing a lot of lifetime politicos running for office, i.e. Ralph Reed, etc.

So, what do you think?  Is it necessary for elected officials to have a law degree and practice law, or does business experience prove to be more valuable for government and elected officials?  What about someone who has worked on campaigns and perhaps in a Presidential Administration their entire career … do they have the experience to lead and represent the people (keep in mind, I am mainly talking about statewide and congressional seats – not local offices)?

Who would you rather have, a businessperson, a lawyer, or a government worker?  There are obviously pros and cons to each, but what about the growing trend showing that a great deal of our elected officials are beginning to come from business backgrounds, rather than the traditional law backgrounds?

Also, what kind of education is important … a JD, MBA, PhD, etc?  Or, is it necessary for elected officials to have a degree? 

I have always been interested in this debate, because politics is the only field where people emerge from the most diverse backgrounds and experience.  Also, this year’s races in Georgia are a perfect example, because we have candidates running for signficant offices, who represent all kinds of backgrounds and experience, and of course, they all tout their experience as something that will help them when they are elected.


  1. 4ofspades says:

    Good question. I don’t think there are any absolutes.

    I actually think it depends on the office your running for. County Commissioners are different, than state legislators, which are different that the various constitutional offices.

    At the county level you need to understand finances, and zonings, with some understanding of legislature.

    For a state legislator some legal background maybe helpful. I think it does help to have some background in local politics. For the most part the counties and cities get stuck implementing what the state passes.

    For constitutional offices, it depends on the office. Lt. Gov. Senate experience is a big plus. SoS a combo of solid business executive experience, plus some type of elected official experience. I would suggest, that the same type of background would be good for Gov.

  2. GAWire says:

    Good points, Spades.

    Also, what about members of congress? I hear people say all the time that the lawmakers need to have a law degree, but how much lawyering is really done at that level?

    Also the executive, state of national … they are essentially the CEO of the state/country, so a legal background might not make as much difference; however, experience as a CEO of a company might come in handy there.

    Elected office, in my opinion, is essentially managing – managing constituents, managing and delegating staff, etc. An MBA can go a long ways towards experience, rather than knowing caselaw.

    Finally, what about our doctors who hold office? These guys were great in med school, but do they know how to manage a business or the legal aspects behind lawmaking? Most doctors have some small business experience if they come from a practice background, but doctors are not typically great businesspeople, and most don’t have business education. What do you think?

  3. Demonbeck says:

    It takes all kinds. The House of Representatives is the “House of the People” and Representatives should be from all walks of life. Allowing anything less would be a horrific mistake.

    However, when voting, I take great interest in the candidate’s views, but I take equal interest in their experience. Frankly, I prefer people who have had elected experience. It tells me that they have shouldered the burden of leadership successfully and are worthy of the trust given them by their constituency.

  4. 4ofspades says:

    I agree with you about how much “lawyering” is done. They do make laws. Does that mean you need to be a lawyer? At the end of the day each individual decides. We all know that some people vote solely on one issue (what ever it maybe) and it doesn’t have anything to do with the actual qualifications for the job.

    I do believe a CEO would be a good state or national executive, but it’s not essential. Being a business executive would also suffice. One thing to keep in mind is that most people do not want to put up with the level of scruntity and BS that goes on in a campaign.

    I’ll get shot for this one, but college degrees, whether an MBA, BS, BA just open doors at the beginning of a carreer, and provide networks for later in life. After you’ve been in the workforce, I don’t think they really mean that much.

    Also, politics is about selling – selling ideas, selling your capabilities, and selling your counterparts on your ideas.

  5. Erick says:

    My preference is for businessmen in executive jobs and a healthy dose of lawyers in legislative positions. I think, seriously, the less lawyers you have in the legislature, the more things can get run into the ground. Writing laws has, unfortunately, become an artform lawyers can usually master better than others.

    Gone are the days where statute drafting could be done with simple words and phrases.

  6. GAWire says:

    Spades and Erick both make good points. I think there has to be legal experts in the lawmaking process – that’s a given. I also agree that an exec doesn’t necessarily ahve to be a CEO, but some “C” Level experience goes a long ways.

    Spades, I am also with you that the degress and letters behind your name don’t make a great deal of difference down the road – they are just a necessity in hitting the ground running.

    Look at Congress, though … some of the best lawmakers were never lawyers at all, and many were not even businesspeople. Also, sometimes legal background people can create barriers.

    Someone also made a good point related to getting things done – it is typical that most people in the business world don’t prefer bureaucratic barriers – they want to streamline and simplify processes, in order to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Lawyers typically want the same thing; however, they look at going about this in totally different ways, which often times are ways that add time, stress, burden, etc.

    What if our state was ran like a fortune 500 company?

    Here’s another point to this discussion … what about campaigns? The BC’04 was an example of a campaign being ran like a business – a well oiled machine which at the operational level rivaled any fortune 500 company in the world today. What does experience come into behind the scenes of political campaigning? No longer are operatives coming mostly from law school – now you are seeing more political scientists and management professionals coming in to run campaigns like a business and be more effective at managing the increasing amount of money that is involved in today’s campaigns.

  7. law303peachtreeroad says:

    You need a law degree to be in politics at any level. To be in politics at the state-wide level you NEED Legislative Experience. The education at The Gold Dome is too valuable to properly quantify.

  8. SouthernConservative says:

    4 – I have to agree with you about the degree issue. The degree, no matter what level, unless you’re going into something technical, scientific, or medical related, really does nothing more than provide an access point to the workforce. Once you’re in, you advance through ability to perform your job, personal character, ambition, the ability to network, and personal leadership.

    The need for lawyers in the legislative process is becoming less and less, as the process becomes more bureaucratic and the government pays attorneys and lawyers to do the research and legal analysis. Again, the most needed qualities in the political/governmental process are leadership and communication.

  9. Rusty Paw says:

    Tom Delay, love him or hate him, was one of the most successful legislators in history. That is tough to dispute. Whether you agree with what his goals were, or disagree with his ethical baggage, he was good at passing the legislation that he got behind.

    Tom Delay worked in Pest Control. Therefore, all future elected officials should kill bugs at some point in their professional careers…

    If you think that is an assinine post, read the one above it.

  10. The Busdriver says:

    I would have to respectfully disagree with law303—it is not necessary to have a law degree in order to serve in the Congress or the state legislature. Many of our great public policy leaders have no legal training whatsoever.

    Having been a congressional staffer, I can assure you that most offices have some form of legislative counsel, and they–not the member– provide legal advice should the need arise. Furthermore, there’s actually an office named Legislative Counsel that’s there to answer any question members/staff may have, so it’s not critical that the member have legal training.

    I’d like my representative to be someone with a business background, rather than a legal background, so I’d side with an MBA over a JD. But I don’t believe someone has to have a graduate degree in order to serve in government.

  11. I don’t believe that you need a law degree to be in politics because I don’t hold a law degree, and yet I understand politics almost as much as some the people that do have law degrees.

    If you look at our last five Presidents, George W. Bush isn’t a lawyer; Bill Clinton was; George H. W. Bush wasn’t a lawyer; Ronald Reagan wasn’t a lawyer; and Jimmy Carter wasn’t a lawyer.

    So only one of the past five Presidents has been a lawyer.

    And I’ll also mention that of Georgia’s previous five Governors, only two have been lawyers, Roy Barnes & George Busbee.

    Being a lawyer is ok, but being one isn’t going to put you on a fast track to a successful career in politics.

    I would agree that you need legislative experience, but only to a certain extent. Having legislative experience definitely gives you a leg-up when you’re trying to get your legislative agenda passed, however, you could easily hire someone who has a ton of legislative experience, and you yourself could instead focus on developing the big ideas while leaving the legislative minutae to your hired gun(s).

  12. Demonbeck says:

    How many lawyers do we have in our federal delegation?

    I can only think of one that I am sure of – John Barrow – the epitome of effective.

  13. Jason Rizner says:

    I don’t have time to put together all my thoughts in a coherent group of paragraphs, so here are a few points:

    – It’s certainly not necessary for politicians to have any particular background, and a law degree is certainly not necessary.

    – Being a legislator (or any politician for that matter) is not all about drafting bills.

    – In the state legislature, the vast majority of the drafting is done by the Office of Legislative Counsel. A lawmaker can tell the lawyers there what they want to accomplish, and the lawyers in leg counsel draft a bill to get it done.

    – Politics is about understanding issues and being an effective communicator. I know plenty of lawyers that aren’t good communicators and don’t know jack about many public policy issues.

    – Statewide office is about leadership ability.

    – I would agree that the knowledge of the political process that comes from holding elected office is important, but it’s not necessarily something that resonates with the average voter. People are incredibly disgruntled with politicians, and they like fresh blood.

  14. JRM2016 says:

    OK, I am going to defend my fellow lawyers.

    In executive positions, you don’t need a legal background (as every executive post has its own attorney).

    In legislative positions, it is helpful, though not imperative to have a law degree. When we don’t have enough lawyers in the legislature, people make decisions without fully considering the legal consequences. With all due respect to the staffer that mentioned legislative counsel, they don’t have the ability to discuss policy but only the technical aspects of the legislation. Without lawyers in positions that afford someone with a legal background a voice in the legislative process.

    Quick Example: The Georgia Legislature passes a bill authorizing public displays of the Ten Commandments and promising a defense to those local governments that choose to make such a display. Legislative Counsel is there to write that law, not comment on the potential costs of fighting the ACLU all over the state. A lawyer-legislator can say with authority that we are picking a state-wide fight with the ACLU and that we had better be prepared to shell out millions to defend these localities before we pass the law.

    Another Quick Example: Section “B” of the Same-Sex Marriage Amendment. While I disagree with the Judge’s ruling, had more lawyers been involved in the drafting of the language and how it would be displayed to voters, the ACLU could have been entirely blocked from any technical ground on which to contest the law.

    So Executive Positions, a law degree wouldn’t hurt but surely is not a pre-requisite for qualifying.

    Legislative Positions–need a certain number of lawyers, but not everyone need be a lawyer.

  15. GAWire says:

    JRM, you actually make good points, which I imagine is due to your lawyer experience. While I am in the group who doesn’t believe law experience is necessary or even very beneficial, your example show how applicable experience can certainly help in certain situations. Ultimately, this goes to show the importance of diversity of background within legislative bodies, so different viewpoints and experiences can be used to make good policy.

    Riz’s point about many lawyers who can’t communicate is very good, and the same goes for many business people.

    I think Rusty’s point about DeLay is also applicable.

    I want to bring up another example of success … look at Newt Gingrich. Now, you can debate his politics and personal issues all day long, but you cannot deny that the guy is a political genious (sp?), and he certainly isn’t a lawyer (I don’t think he likes lawyers much). He is an analytical and strategic thinking, which comes from his academic experience and experiences in policy/politics. He, like DeLay, became a target b/c he was smart and effective, and they are always the ones to be targeted. Look at Hastert … he isn’t a revolutionary – he’s a good Republican and an ok leader, but he’s nothing to write home about and he isn’t a threat to Dems, that’s why they don’t target him. He’s essentially a paper pushing moderator in the House. Newt was nothing of that sort and neither was DeLay, although there are distinct differences b/t Speaker and Maj Ldr.

    Another point … what about military experience. Is this needed? Certainly it’s good, honorable, and valuable learning, but do our leaders have to be military people, or can they acheive sufficient experience elsewhere, which allow them to make military decisions? What about Duke Cunningham? John McCain? Someone mentioned J Carter – he was a Navy guy. What about this expeirence as President? Clinton’s service was questionable. Dems question GWB’s service, although it was as honorable as any full time serviceperson. What about a woman as President or in any office? Can a female Senator lead the Armed Services committee as good as a man who has military experience? WHat about administration and cabinent positions? We are seeing a lot of hoo-ha about a military guy taking over CIA.

  16. Jason Rizner says:

    As for JRM’s examples, I would respectfully disagree that a lawyer-legislator is better able to spot difficulties that may arise with legislation dealing wit the Ten Commandments, gay marriage, etc. Interest groups (including the ACLU) bitch and moan about these bills long before they become law. Any lawmaker with half a brain should recognize the potential for lawsuits when introducing that type of bill.

    That being said, I would agree with JRM that we do need a certain number of lawyers in legislative positions.

  17. atlantaman says:

    “You need a law degree to be a lawmaker.” “You need a law degree to be in politics at any level.”

    Spoken by lawyers I’m sure. Boy the shit is really starting to get thick around here.

    When this Country was founded you had folks on the Supreme Court without law degrees, so I feel quite certain it was not the intent of our founding fathers for the Legislature to be packed chock full of people with law degrees. I don’t think George Washington managed to pick up a law degree, but I might be mistaken.

    I can’t imagine a more devasting effect then to have our Country governed exclusively by lawyers. You’d be better off picking the first 535 people in the phone book.

  18. Cotton Boll says:

    Cut to the chase folks – list who you do not think is qualified for the job they seek.

    I’ll start the ball rolling – Agriculture Commissioner:
    Kemp and Greer are not qualified due to their lack of experience in the ag industry. I’m in it – thay ain’t.

    Gary Black and Tommy Irwin have the necessary experience.

    Pile on!

  19. Rusty Paw says:

    Mike Crotts, Charlie Bailey, Deanna Strickland, Griffin Lotson, Angela Moore and Mr. State’s Rights are all uber-Qualified. Herschel Walker is and so is Barbara Dooley!!!!!!!

    Run Lindsey Run

  20. The Busdriver says:

    Hey Cotton, do you have to vote for John Edwards to be qualified to serve as Agriculture Commissioner?

  21. Cotton Boll says:

    You need to know the industry that you seek to lead. If you make serving on the Bush-Cheney Farm Team another qualification then Gary Black is the only one that meets the criteria.

    The aggies around here at home feel the same. We support Bush and we are supporting Black as well.

  22. The Busdriver says:

    Well, Ralph Reed worked on the Bush-Cheney team, so I don’t blindly vote for people who’ve served on the Bush campaign. Heck, Abramoff was a Pioneer.

    Truthfully, I know little about this race, so I’m not claiming to be an expert. I just don’t understand how being an industry lobbyist immediately makes someone a better candidate than a legislator that’s worked on and voted on ag issues. I see them as equally qualified.

  23. Bull Moose says:

    Well, honestly, Ralph Reed’s experience as a top lobbyist for Enron in the waning days before it went bankrupt isn’t much for a positive reference in terms of qualifications for public office in Georgia.

    Maybe Ralph can get better experience as an Abramoff associate?

    I prefer real life, non-criminal experience for my office holders.

  24. GAWire says:

    Well there you have it, folks … I think it took about 25 posts b/f it turned into the Ralph vs Casey debate.

    We’re already there, so you might as well go at it.

    As for the original debate, the ag race is a good example – you have a lobbyist/businessperson who obviously has great experience in that sector versus a legislator that obviously has experience as an elected official, and thus some knowledge of the office he is seeking. That really is a tough one to decide based on experience.

    As for Ralph, we know that any experience he has is negated by his lack of ethical decision making ability. Casey Cagle has him beat on experience and leadership.

    I like atlantaman’s historical references … essentially known of the founding fathers were lawyers – the extent of law school was how many books on philosophy and the structure of the english and roman legal systems in the past. Other than that, they were starting from scratch, and using their experience elsewhere to go on it. As a matter of fact, all of the leaders at the time were some sort of businessmen – even Washington. They were farmers, military leaders, manufacturers, investors, etc. They took their experiences there to help them make decisions as leaders for the country. Obviously things have changed, but all this is to say that I think the mentality of you gotta be a lawyer to legislate/lead is absolutely wrong, and lawyers should know better than anyone that a JD wasn’t needed to write the constitution.

  25. Cotton Boll says:

    Busdriver – who said anything about blindly voting for Bush supporters? You gott have farm knowledge and you don’t get that from serving on a committee or bulldozing land – or running a pet store. Kemp and Greer can’t hold a candle to Gary Black or Tommy Irwin when it comes to experience…that’s all I am saying.

  26. Groseclose says:

    Busdriver wrote: Brian Kemp “worked on and voted on ag issues.” Now that gave me my laugh of the day!

  27. The Busdriver says:

    Groseclose wrote: I’m a jackmule who is supporting someone that voted for Democrats. Now that gave me my laugh of the day!

  28. JRM2016 says:

    Just a quick note on the historically no one had a law degree issue.

    In the 1700s, law as we know it today was just emerging as a field. Up until then, most law was set by the King or the ruling oligarchies in Europe. America, as a British colony, inheirited British common law, or judge made law, that originated with precedents dating from the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 forward. Lawyers of that time were trained in apprentice fashion and no formal degree system was established in the United States until the establishment of the Law School at Harvard University by Christopher Langdell and others.

    Over the past fifty years in particular, our law has become much less case oriented (judge made) and much more statute oriented (legislature made). The importance of legislatures in the United States is probably at its height today in terms of ability to shape the law. And the language used in legislation must be carefully crafted to achieve the ends that our policy makers want. Lawyer-legislators make that goal much easier to meet. Should we only have lawyer-legislators? Of course not. There is room and indeed should be room for exterminators, college professors, small businessmen and people from every walk of life. All I am saying is that legal expertise is uniquely suited to framing legislation and having a healthy number of lawyers in your legislature is a good thing.

    As for master tacticians and political strategists, I think those come from every profession and that lawyers certainly have no monopoly on leading our country, our state and our political parties. But I think there is no debate that lawyers need to have input into how we craft our laws so that those laws meet the ends of their makers.

  29. Maurice Atkinson says:

    Knowledge of the position being sought;
    Ability to identify and seek solutions to problems;
    Ability to achieve consensus;
    Tolerant of opposing viewpoints without violating ones core principles;
    Ability to maintain focus;
    Ability to motivate to action;
    Ability to study and learn new concepts;
    Integrity in all things

    The problem as I see it is there are far too many armchair politicos but too few people who will involve themselves in the process. It’s easy to be a commentator and hurl the criticism.

  30. Jack S says:

    I think a candidate should have enough common sense to know that you can’t beat a 36 year incumbent running on how much “experience” you have.

    It all comes down to judgment. I think the campaigns to date show who has good judgment and does not.

    Kemp 06.

  31. Jack S says:

    And the pic on his website of ralph playing chess with that kid sums it all up.

    Cagle 06

  32. conservativecore says:

    Wow having been involved in the game and working with Lawyers, doctors, insurance agents, cops, stay at home moms, and many many other professionals the one common thread they shared is a committment ot want to do good things. No matter your affiliation or belief all it really takes is, desire, passion and committment. The rest you can hire people to handle.

    Before everyone gets all crazy I have both legislative and campaign experience and have seen the good and the bad or legislature has to offer.

    For example Jim Martin while yes he is a lawyer, his legal skills were helpful and while he and I would most likely disagree on the solution to many problems his commitment to doing “it” right was absolute.

    On the other hand you have someone like Robin Williams who on many things I agreed with him but he was there for the power and anyone who worked under the dome knows exactly what I am talking about.

    Give me a highschool dropout with character, dedication, passion and a true set of beliefs of a power politician any day.

  33. McCain-Rice\'08 says:

    I would like to see the candidates for state wide office to have earned their stripes in the General Assymbly as either a State Rep or a State Senator, they could also be County Commisioners, or District attorneys or judges…and of course there are the exceptions. However, simply being a doctor, or a lawyer or an engineer etc. is not acceptable in my opinion for state wide office…to me that says they don’t fuly understand the system. Now, they are certainly qualified for State House or maybe even State Senate, or another localized position…but statewide office is the big leagues and they don’t have the expierence I as a voter would like to see. Now of course they are by law elidgeable to run, and they have every right to do so..but they don’t meet my personal standards.

  34. McCain-Rice\'08 says:

    Now Military expierience is something I’d like to see a little more of…but If a candidate didn’t serve in the military, I wont hold it against them…it’d just be nice to see more veterans in office.

    Ohh.. and on a another note, Cotton Bowl..I just wanted to let you know that the last name of our current Ag. Commisioner is IRVIN rather than “Irwin” 🙂

  35. bowersville says:

    They are going to jump you in the morning. Cotton boll-seed bearing pod of a cotton plant. Cotton Bowl-NCAA football game.

  36. Bill Simon says:

    Regarding lawyers, I think Mr. Shakespeare’s satirical (?) reference to what should be done with them still applies today…with, perhaps the exception of Erick, who appears to actually BE an honest and good lawyer.

  37. McCain-Rice\'08 says:

    LOL..Bowers, thanks for correcting me…I didn’t look at his screen name close enough I guess.

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