Jeremy Gillam, the Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives, shared a behind-the-scenes look at the legislative process to University of Arkansas – Fort Smith students and discussed his keys for success as a legislator during a talk on the UAFS campus Nov.1 as the inaugural guest for a new speaker series at the university.
Gillam spoke to UAFS students about his upbringing in public service thanks to a father who was a county judge and his work taking over his father’s farm with his brother, which taught him important lessons in patience that proved useful in his later role as a legislator. The talk was the first in the Political Lion speaker series coordinated by the UAFS chapter of the American Democracy Project.
“You learn a lot of lessons when you’re in farming and agriculture. Patience is one of those,” Gillam said. “Especially in our line of work, when we raised blackberries, blueberries and grapes, you have to plant things and wait. I learned some valuable lessons about perseverance.”
“For me, I hold those lessons as very precious and very dear. When you’re in the legislature … you didn’t have to solve all the world’s problems in that first 90-day session. That was a huge lesson for me,” Gillam continued. “So many times, we rush things. And in public service and in policymaking in particular, usually that’s bad. So I was able to advocate for approaches that might take longer and might even have to be done by people who would take the baton after we left office.”
That was the first of several qualities of good legislators that Gillam shared with students, and the advice shared a common theme: the need for civility and empathy among policymakers.
Citing remarks by historian Jon Meacham on his analysis of successful presidents, Gillam stressed the importance of compromising in matters of public policy.
“In all of his analysis of successful presidents, that was one of the key takeaways that he had,” Gillam said. “Having been the Speaker for two terms, I can say … that’s something that is valuable in all aspects of public leadership.”
Another important quality for a legislator is to have authenticity, according to Gillam, who cited the lack of authenticity among politicians as a major reason for a rise in political apathy by voters.
“So much of what you read in surveys of why people have become apathetic towards politics, is a feel that people are going to say one thing and do another and they don’t feel that authenticity,” he said. “For me, I wanted to make sure that my colleagues knew who I was, where I was coming from, why I thought the way I did, and understood my background so that when I went down in front of them with a bill or presentation, they understood why I was doing it. Being able to accomplish something in public service really begins and ends with authenticity.”
Gillam concluded his remarks by emphasizing the need for perspective and decorum, and how difficult those qualities can be sometimes in the statehouse.
“There’s been moments where I’ve had weak moments in the legislature where you want to come off the statesmen position that you’ve staked out,” he said. “Politicians are a dime a dozen, but what the state really needed was statesmen and stateswomen that really charted a higher course for the state.”
Following his talk, Gillam answered questions from students on issues ranging from his stance on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to the effectiveness of taking down Confederate monuments.
Gillam’s talk is the first of several that will take place on the UAFS campus over this school year and beyond as part of a set of speaker series coordinated by ADP, which aims to promote civic engagement and political participation among students, according to Dr. Williams Yamkam, assistant professor of political science and chair of ADP on the UAFS campus.
“The ultimate goal is for our students to learn from the practical experience of those seasoned public servants so as to become more informed about the political process and better engaged citizens,” Yamkam said. “This is part of UAFS' effort to not only educate students in the classroom, but to also prepare them to become proactive citizens who are ready to function in the 'real world' upon graduation. A vibrant democracy cannot do without an educated and proactive citizenry."
Also in attendance at the event were Reps. George McGill and Charlotte Douglas, and Jon Eubanks.
About the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith
The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith is the premiere regional institution of Western Arkansas, connecting education with careers and serving as a driver of economic development and quality of place in the greater Fort Smith region. Small class sizes, dedicated faculty and staff, affordable tuition rates, and a diverse on-campus culture allow UAFS students to fully explore their areas of interest in ways that prepare them for post-graduate success academically, professionally, and personally. To find out what makes UAFS just right for you, go to www.uafs.edu.