2015 PE Legislators
Professional engineers are impacting policy at all levels of government. Learn about PEs who became legislators and their experiences, and gain insights into how NSPE members can advocate for the profession.
Rep. Bart Korman, P.E.
(R, District 42, Missouri House)
When Bart Korman, P.E. (R, District 42, Missouri House), first ran for a seat in the Missouri legislature in 2002, he lost. Yet, he was determined to not let that stop him. He learned the importance of fundraising and engaging the community through a grassroots campaign and found success in his 2010 race.
Korman believes that it’s very important that professional engineers share their views on public policy issues with legislators. PEs can greatly affect public policy, particularly on issues related to transportation, utilities, environment, public safety, and licensure, he says. “Public officials, for the most part, want reasonable and unbiased information prior to making decisions.”
Korman’s legislative successes include passage of a bill that established a peer review process for design professionals and a bill that created parity between contractors and subcontractors on public works projects. He has also brought his engineering experience to many conversations dealing with energy and transportation legislation.
Professional engineers should also participate in the legislative process by working with a political campaign or running for office, Korman says. Public bodies need a mix of people serving; there is usually a shortage of engineers. “Public service can be rewarding and frustrating; [PEs] should be prepared to face people that think differently and to realize that some decisions don’t seem logical,” he says. “They should also be prepared to compromise, to deal with the media, and to upset people from time to time. In politics, everything is a variable in the equation.”
The experience that engineers have with problem solving and working with various project stakeholders will help when they have to navigate the legislative process, Korman adds. “Lawmaking is similar to a project engineer dealing with an owner, architect, multiple regulatory agencies, and a budget.”
Download Korman's speaker presentation from the NSPE 2015 Annual Meeting:
The Path to Political Office—Encouraging Involvement in the Political Process.
Rep. Louis Blessing III, P.E.
(R, District 29, Ohio House)
What are the keys to a successful political career? Staying connected to the community, fundraising, and working well with others, says Louis Blessing III, P.E., who is serving his second term in office.
During his tenure, Blessing has focused on backing computerized FE and PE exam testing as well as continuing education requirements. He has also provided strong input on transportation budget and capital appropriations bills. “Since it is becoming increasingly more difficult to pull down federal funding for infrastructure, it is up to the state to pick up the slack,” he says. “This makes it even more important that Ohio funds its own infrastructure.”
PEs are well poised to become great legislators, says Blessing, particularly in the areas of budgeting and infrastructure. One reason is their demonstrated commitment to the public health, safety, and welfare. “Licensure signals to the public that the professionals in charge of the design of public projects not only know what they are doing, but also have the public’s best interests in mind,” he says.
Aspiring politicos can start by getting active in a political party, Blessing advises, since party support is critical for fundraising and drawing future campaign volunteers. Then they should focus on the local level by running for city council or serving as a member of a county board. “It’s important to build a name ID as well as a strong fundraising base,” he says. “Unless you are a billionaire with a name that everybody knows, it is unlikely that you’ll be able to raise the millions of dollars needed to win a congressional seat right out of the gate.”
PEs who don’t want to run for office but are concerned about how legislators make decisions on issues critical to the engineering community should get more vocal with advocacy, says Blessing. “This means showing up to town hall meetings and corresponding with the legislators.”
Rep. Lake Ray, P.E.
(R, District 12, Florida House)
Lake Ray, P.E., started developing an interest in government and civics during the seventh grade.
After serving eight years on the Jacksonville city council, he set out to serve at the state level in 2007. He was able to capitalize on the relationships that he had built in his city and region through community involvement and his experience as a small business owner to develop a solid grassroots campaign for city council and later the state legislature. “It is disingenuous to those you want to serve if you are only with them for an election,” he says. “The involvement in your community will give you good connections for campaigns and a better understanding of what is important to the people you want to serve.”
Ray has used his expertise to focus on developing policies for investing in Florida’s deepwater ports and other infrastructure, in order to spur economic development. He believes that it’s critical that PEs share their views on public policy issues with their state legislators, who look to people who have specialized knowledge. “As there are few engineers that serve in the legislature, [elected officials] need to hear from professional engineers.”
How can PEs best provide input into the legislative process? Effective and consistent communication with legislators is essential, says Ray. “[PEs] need to invite legislators to meetings and engage them at all levels, including campaigns … Most of the time I only hear from professionals once a year when they come to ask for something. Develop a relationship with the members of the legislature and they will work on your behalf.”
Rep. Wayne Smith, P.E.
(R, District 128, Texas House)
Wayne Smith, P.E., was motived to seek public office because he values service to his country, state, and local community. He began his public service career with an appointment to his city planning commission, which allowed him to use professional engineering expertise. The PE license enhanced his credibility with the public. “Licensure is important because it shows the public that you are competent in your profession, which brings reassurance that a job will be performed correctly,” Smith says.
The representative is a strong believer that PEs must share their views on public policy with their state legislators. “Laws affect all arenas of engineering, from speed limits to bridges to building codes,” he says. “Legislators need experts in the engineering field to advise them on good public policy for the safety of all citizens.”
As a member of the legislature, Smith has had a direct impact on issues related to transportation, water quality, and air quality because of his engineering experience. He has also been able to address licensing requirements by serving as chairman of the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures. Unfortunately, he is one of only two members of the legislature who are professional engineers. “As our society becomes more complex and technical, we must have knowledgeable people in office that understand these issues,” says Smith. “Engineers are hard to come by in the Texas legislature, so other officeholders will respect your knowledge of critical engineering issues.”
Sen. Clyde Chambliss, P.E.
(R, District 30, Alabama Senate)
Clyde Chambliss, P.E., took “a leap of faith” and ran for a seat on his county’s commission when he saw first-hand, while serving as the assistant county engineer, that problems were not being effectively addressed by his local government. He served on the local body for 12 years before eventually taking another leap to a state-level office. As a state senator, he understands how critical it is for professional engineers to engage in the political process and share their views on public policy issues. “We don’t participate very well in the political process and we don’t understand when people don’t think just like we do,” Chambliss says. “The good news is that [both] of these things can be changed. We can have a great impact in the political world.”
Chambliss believes that professional engineers can start to have a positive impact by engaging with elected officials even when there isn’t an active issue that needs addressing. “When people in my district contact me, it trumps the contacts of lobbyists and government officials that have a vested interest in the outcome,” he says.
Chambliss is the only member of the state senate out of 35 members who has a background in engineering. During his tenure, he has used his engineering education and professional expertise to defeat a proposal that would have allowed the reuse of plans, reports, and studies by any state agency without the involvement of a design professional.
One professional engineer is better than none, Chambliss says, but he believes more PEs need to run for office. He advises anyone interested in doing so to start by seeking guidance from someone who has run successful campaigns. “This is what I did in 1995 and it has worked very well for me in seven elections,” he says. “You will be frustrated by the process and by the decisions, but if you don’t do it, others will and they won’t be as friendly to the profession as you are.”
Sen. Jim Halligan, P.E.
(R, District 21, Oklahoma Senate)
While serving as the president of Oklahoma State University, Jim Halligan, P.E., imparted on his students that they had an obligation to render public service. He realized that he would have to live up to this same standard.
Since 2008, the Stillwater native has served as a state senator, using his professional experience to serve his constituents. “I have been stressing the importance of quality education at all levels in Oklahoma,” he says. “I have been consistently supportive of higher requirements for mathematics because producing additional students with STEM skills is essential to our national well-being.”
Now as a political office holder, Halligan also knows how important it is for the profession to speak up and engage in the political process. “Oklahoma’s budget is huge compared to most enterprises in the state,” he says. “Engineers need to step forward and share their views concerning the pressing priorities.” PEs should concentrate on a couple of important issues each year and then forcefully advocate for those issues, he adds.
Halligan wants PEs to know that, if they seek public office, they must be prepared to devote time and financial resources to doing so. They must also realize that there will be challenges to their views and agendas. “Passing legislation has been compared to making sausage and is not a concise or straightforward process,” he says. “Persistence in the face of opposition is essential.”
Rep. Dennis Paul, P.E.
(R, District 129, Texas House)
Dennis Paul, P.E., believes that licensure is vital to ensuring an educated and capable profession. He has used his experience as both a professional engineer and a small business owner to engage with his fellow legislators to address issues of concern to his constituents and the profession. “I think my fellow members know they can trust me on many issues due to my own work experience, especially on issues concerning transparency, infrastructure, water, and the constitution,” he says. One of his legislative accomplishments involved working to pass a Good Samaritan law to protect professionals from liability when they volunteer their services during a disaster or emergency situation.
Paul got his start in the political arena by volunteering his time and efforts to grassroots operations as a local precinct chair for 15 years, and he served on his state party’s executive committee for seven years prior to seeking office. Over the years, he has learned that professional engineers can be effective with the legislative process by getting to know their legislators, speaking out about their concerns and, if possible, working on campaigns.
Paul also offers three pieces of advice to engineers interested in seeking public office:
- If you believe in the legislative process and want to be a part of [improving] your community and state for the betterment of citizens, go for it.
- Criticism and insults come with the position. It is hard to put your family through this, but it’s worth the effort.
- Problem-identification and -solving [skills] are traits that help engineers in the legislative process.
Sen. David Omdahl, P.E.
(R, District 11, South Dakota Senate)
David Omdahl, P.E., has learned during his time in office that people in his district want problem solvers like professional engineers to serve in public office, particularly to determine how best to use limited financial resources while building and maintaining good infrastructure and growing the economy.
Omdahl believes that licensure is vital to the engineering profession, since public safety is engineers’ number one responsibility. This expertise has also greatly influenced his legislative focus. “Expanding rail transportation in South Dakota and the funding for state and county highways and bridges were two areas [in which] my engineering knowledge added credibility to the legislation,” he says.
The professional engineer’s role in public safety is not understood by most public officials and government leaders, says Omdahl. Additional engagement from the PE community is more critical than ever. “PEs need to take the time to research issues that will be coming up in their legislatures and put some face time in by visiting their state capitols and letting their voices be heard,” he says.