This quiet village in Cape Cod, best known for the Four Seas Ice Cream shop, hardly seems like the birthplace of a legislative movement that has spread across the U.S. and overseas to Europe and China. But 40 years ago, Stephen Lakis, founder and president of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation (SLLF), rented a typewriter here and set up operations on a friend’s dining room table, hoping to help legislative leaders get better at their jobs.
Once Lakis had established the foundation as a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization, he found more permanent quarters in an office above a Centerville liquor store. “Looking back, it was a very funny time, but it was perfect for us,” he says.
But if location didn’t matter, the programs certainly did. Modeling them after the Harvard Kennedy School’s educational workshops for freshman legislators in Congress, the nascent foundation set out to create a school that would provide what Lakis calls “serious learning experiences” for its core constituency of about 500 elected legislative officials, focused primarily on state speakers, presidents, majority and minority leaders, whips, select committee chairs and others.
Similar in age but much smaller and less well known than the National Conference of State Legislatures or even the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), SLLF was born at a time when state legislatures were believed to be inefficient and inadequate. The foundation’s original list of reforms concerning openness and ethics has been recast in terms of transparency and integrity, but still resonate today.
In the last year, with funding from sponsoring corporations, the foundation has brought dozens of legislators to major universities for programs on revitalizing the middle class and trust in government, health care, the environment and the economy.
SLLF also convenes an annual emerging legislative leaders’ conference at the University of Virginia. Participants arrive on campus identified by their state and legislative role. But missing is their party affiliation. “We ask everybody to take the Ds and the Rs off,” says University of Virginia professor Ed Freeman. “There’s never been any pressure to make it a lefty or righty program. It has always been about broadening the conversation.” Lakis says participants appreciate that because it provides respite from the reality where they often “have to wear ideological labels too heavily at home.”
The SLLF conference helps emerging and veteran legislators work across conventional divides, and Lakis hopes it might inoculate them from today’s nasty civic virus. “The country is in a rough patch right now because of a national malaise of intense, no-compromise partisanship,” he says. “It has infected a lot of legislators in a lot of states, but I don’t see it as something that can sustain itself.”
Freeman credits SLLF for protecting itself from potential pitfalls. Unlike the larger and explicitly ideological ALEC, which finds itself embattled over its model legislation on voter ID rules and Stand Your Ground gun laws, Freeman says the foundation’s success lay largely in avoiding partisan positions while playing to its strength of arranging robust, informed discussion, and letting participants interpret and act on issues for themselves.
The foundation also has spread geographically over the decades. Beyond its New England home, it now has offices in Washington, D.C., and Berlin, with work under way to establish ties in Beijing. The underlying idea remains disarmingly simple and unchanged 40 years after its founding. It is equal parts Steve Lakis and Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizen legislators can change the world. Indeed, it may be the only thing that can.