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12 State Legislators to Watch in 2012

The 50 state legislatures have a lot of talent, but these 12 individuals are ones to watch.

Neon Tommy/flickr CC
At a time when politicians are about as popular as a sewage treatment plant being built next to your house, it may seem like poor taste to assemble a list of state legislators who are rising stars. But there are big decisions ahead of state legislatures this year, so it’s good to know there are talented people making them.

Here are a dozen state lawmakers, equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, who are deemed players to watch based on interviews with political experts in state capitals across the country.

Undoubtedly, there are scores of noteworthy lawmakers in state government right now. The list could easily be filled with just House speakers and Senate presidents. But that doesn’t seem like enough. Instead, these legislators are individuals who are believed to have a long future in government. Many experts say these 12 state representatives and senators could potentially win higher office.

These are people who have shown a keen ability to strike alliances across party lines. They’ve racked up significant accomplishments during their time in office so far. And each of these lawmakers has an intensely compelling personal story that informs the way he or she governs.

The 12 legislators to watch, listed in alphabetical order, follow.

Stacey Abrams
Georgia House (D)

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who is the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly, earned degrees from Spelman College, Yale Law School and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. She’s a tax attorney and a former deputy city attorney for Atlanta. Despite being in the minority in the Legislature, observers credit her with winning concessions from freshman Republican Gov. Nathan Deal on a revamp of the HOPE scholarship program, a merit-based higher education fund for Georgia residents, and for putting up a strong fight against a GOP tax plan. Under the pen name Selena Montgomery, Abrams has published seven romantic suspense novels.

“Stacey Abrams is definitely an up-and-comer,” says Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist. “She is what the Democratic party in the state needed -- a fresh face with talent and drive for the long haul.”

Jim Banks
Indiana Senate (R)

Sen. Jim Banks, a county party chair and congressional district vice chair, is touted as being on the fast track to a leadership post even though he’s only in his first term. A background in public affairs has only helped his chances -- he has crafted a strong media strategy that uses both traditional and new media. In addition, he recently chaired a legislative interim study panel -- unusual for a freshman -- on future water resource issues that experts say could lead to some important policy and infrastructure choices over the next few years.

“He’s tireless. He does not miss an event -- political or otherwise -- in his district, even if it means driving back from session in Indianapolis for an hour appearance,” says Ed Feigenbaum, the publisher of Indiana Legislative Insight, an insider’s newsletter in Indianapolis. “He’s looked to by his freshmen peers for political advice and policy counsel.”

Reuven Carlyle
Washington House (D)

Rep. Reuven Carlyle had a turbulent childhood as the son of a single mother in 1960s San Francisco, spending part of his time being raised by friends in the community. In 1970, the family relocated to Bellingham, Wash., where Carlyle ultimately applied for and was chosen as a congressional page, working for such Democratic giants as Sen. Warren Magnuson, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Carlyle eventually earned degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

After a career in the cellphone and software industries, Carlyle won an open seat in 2008 representing a trendy area of Seattle. He has made a point of crossing party lines and taking on figures in his own party. “I believe the people of our district elected me in 2008 to vigorously seek intellectual and moral independence from old-fashioned orthodoxies,” he wrote on his campaign website. “We live in a 21st-century global community and stereotypical positions -- liberal, conservative, Democrat and Republican -- have little bearing on our children’s future.”

Carlyle and state Sen. Andy Hill “are the type of individuals that Washington state voters crave,” says Erin McCallum, the president of Enterprise Washington, a pro-business group. “Neither came from the political party apparatus, instead making their mark in the private sector. Both are diplomats, not dividers, consistently looking for ways that government can be stronger and more efficient.”

Wendy Davis
Texas Senate (D)

Democrats in the Texas Legislature lost significant ground in the 2010 elections. Still, Sen. Wendy Davis, who represents Fort Worth, used the limited tools available to her to achieve spectacular results. Hours before last year’s session was to end, Davis filibustered a bill that included $4 billion in school cuts. That forced Republican Gov. Rick Perry -- who was on his way to becoming a presidential candidate -- to call a special session. It also turned Davis into “an icon among Democratic activists in Texas,” says Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political scientist.

“Since the moment she stepped off the floor, supportive calls from all over the country flooded in, including lots of, ‘Where can I send the check?’” says Genevieve Van Cleve, the deputy political director of Annie’s List, a Texas-based group that recruits progressive women to run for office.

Early in life, Davis had a tough go of it. By age 19, Davis, whose mother had only a sixth-grade education, was divorced, had a baby and was living in a trailer park. She managed, however, to graduate first in her class from Texas Christian University, and then attended Harvard Law School. She served five terms on the Fort Worth City Council before winning a state Senate seat in 2008.

Davis’ political career nearly came to an end in 2011 when a Republican-drawn redistricting map placed her in a GOP-friendly district. Luckily for her, a map drawn by federal judges put her in a more favorable situation -- albeit one that’s no slam dunk either. Her 2012 re-election contest promises to be a high-profile, high-spending affair.

Andy Hill
Washington Senate (R)

Sen. Andy Hill retired from his job as a Microsoft software engineer to fight what looked like terminal lung cancer. Thanks to an experimental treatment, he beat the disease and proceeded to knock off a Democratic state Senate incumbent in 2010. Since taking office, he’s struck alliances with Democrats on certain education, environmental and social issues. Hill was one of five Senate Republicans to vote for a bill recognizing other states’ domestic partnerships in Washington. He was also one of 10 Republicans to vote to require that the state’s only coal-fired power plant be shut down and replaced with a natural gas facility by 2025.

“[Hill] has literally faced death and turned that experience into the motivation for a career in public service,” says GOP consultant Randy Pepple. “His first year in the state Senate marked him as a thoughtful leader who can reach across party lines for solutions.”

John Kriesel
Minnesota House (R)

A self-described “blue-collar guy,” Rep. John Kriesel worked in manufacturing before enlisting in the Minnesota Army National Guard at age 17. He served in Kosovo and Iraq, losing both legs to a roadside bomb. He was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Purple Heart Medal and the Bronze Star Medal. Kriesel, who briefly worked as an intern for former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota in 2007, distinguished himself -- and not necessarily to his political advantage -- when he broke ranks with other Republicans to oppose a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and woman.

David Schultz, a Hamline University political scientist, calls the move gutsy, and warns that it could draw serious primary opposition. “The Minnesota GOP is not so sympathetic of mavericks,” Schultz says.

Ted Lieu
California Senate (D)

At the young age of 3, Sen. Ted Lieu’s family emigrated from Taiwan to the United States. At first, they had little, but eventually the family opened a gift shop, which today is a small chain. Lieu attended Stanford, earned a law degree from Georgetown and clerked on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before joining the Air Force. He served as a JAG prosecutor and spent four years on active duty. Now in the reserves, Lieu has attained the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Before election to the Senate in 2011, Lieu chaired the Assembly’s Rules, and Banking and Finance committees, where he was a key mover of legislation on such topics as foreclosure prevention, child sex offenders, domestic violence, cyberbullying, sewage spills and health insurance.

“Ted Lieu is that rare Democratic political figure who combines it all,” says California-based Democratic strategist Garry South. “He’s smart and well educated, articulate, pleasant and professional to deal with, center-left while also being a former JAG and current reserve officer in the Air Force, has a photogenic young family, and is part of the fastest-growing ethnic group in the largest state. Plus, under the newly drawn lines, he’s been handed the wealthiest state Senate district in America, including Bel Air and Beverly Hills. He’s teed up for a great political future.”

Michael Roberson
Nevada Senate (R)

Described by the Las Vegas Sun as “the conservatives’ top pugilist” in the Nevada Legislature, Sen. Michael Roberson has shot to the top of the closely divided state Senate.

A former Capitol Hill aide, campaign staffer and vice president of a political fundraising company, Roberson moved to Nevada in 2000 and began practicing law. He made his first run for public office in 2010 and won, unseating a Democratic incumbent in a hotly contested race. Roberson’s victory impressed his fellow GOP legislators, who tapped him to head the party’s campaign effort for 2012. The party needs a net gain of only one seat to flip control of the chamber.

Roberson replaces longtime Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, who was responsible for overseeing campaign efforts before he was forced out for endorsing Democratic Sen. Harry Reid over GOP challenger Sharron Angle in the 2010 election. Raggio also ruffled some GOP feathers by not being sufficiently anti-tax and anti-spending. Roberson, by contrast, has offered an outspoken, fiscally conservative approach that increasingly resonates within his party. He’s considered the frontrunner to become his party’s state leader in 2013.

Vincent Sheheen
South Carolina Senate (D)

Sen. Vincent Sheheen exceeded all expectations in his 2010 race for governor. Running in a strongly Republican state in a strongly Republican year, he lost to Nikki Haley -- who attracted considerable national media attention -- by just four percentage points. An effective legislator, he had sponsored 18 bills that became state law prior to his gubernatorial campaign.

Sheheen, whose father was a state education commissioner, served as a city prosecutor and a state representative before winning election to the Senate in 2004. “Sheheen represents the pragmatic tradition of South Carolina found in dynamic leaders such as former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings and former U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley,” says Andy Brack, publisher and columnist of

He is widely expected to run again for higher office. “Sheheen remains a public critic of Gov. Haley, which may help explain her rather extensive out-of-state fundraising during her first year in office,” says Jack Bass, a College of Charleston political scientist.

Will Weatherford
Florida House (R)

Rep. Will Weatherford is the official speaker-in-waiting in the GOP-dominated Florida House, with a term that would start after the 2012 elections.

Weatherford is one of nine siblings. His brother Drew was a star quarterback at Florida State, and his father-in-law, Allan Bense, served as House Speaker in Tallahassee.

Elected to the House in 2006, Weatherford chairs the Redistricting Committee and serves on the influential Rules and Calendar Council. “He is young, full of energy and unafraid to tackle the tough issues,” says University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus. “Obviously, he is well served by his father-in-law’s advice on what it takes to get and maintain respect from fellow legislators and the public at large, but his gut instincts on what matters to the people in his district appear to be well above average.”

GOP state Rep. Gary Aubuchon told the St. Petersburg Times, “If there is such a thing as a natural-born leader, Will Weatherford is it.”

Darrin Williams
Arkansas House (D)

Rep. Darrin Williams was adopted and raised in Little Rock. He’s a second-termer in a state with a three-term limit for state representatives, so he’s positioned to become a strong contender for speaker -- which would make him the first African-American to hold the position. He has already chaired the House Judiciary Committee, where he won a measure of bipartisan support for legislation.

“Although Williams represents a progressive, urban district, his religious background -- he’s the son of a minister -- and cultural moderation makes it possible for him to build bridges on issues such as sentencing reform,” says Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College.

Williams worked as an intern for former U.S. Sen. David Pryor and later his son Mark, then-Arkansas attorney general.

Dan Winslow
Massachusetts House (R)

Dan Winslow’s nominal position -- a freshman representative in a chamber and state where Republicans are badly outnumbered -- doesn’t begin to describe his footprint in the Bay State. The onetime judge is a veteran of Massachusetts Republican politics, serving former Gov. Mitt Romney and later helping elect Scott Brown to the late Edward Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat. Winslow handled the implementation of gay marriage for Romney, and won praise from gay rights groups while irritating some in his own party.

In the Legislature, he’s used a mix of new and old media to secure a higher profile for himself and his outspoken, yet pragmatic approach. “Winslow is a thoughtful and intelligent legislator” who also “knows how to promote himself,” says Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University political scientist. “Although he has been in office roughly a year, Winslow has already emerged as one of the most visible Republicans in the Legislature. I would not be at all surprised to see him on the ballot for a statewide office in 2014.”

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
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