Freshman representative works out the kinks his first week on the job

Wednesday, February 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- His lanky legs crowded under his desk, Stuart Ericson picked up the telephone in his tidy office so he could talk to one of the first constituents to call with a problem.

But the brand new state representative pushed the wrong button.

The Muskogee Republican accidentally answered an incoming call instead of the one his assistant had put on hold for him. That one was a wrong number.

With some help from his secretary, Ericson answered the first call, which turned out to be from his next-door neighbor back in Muskogee. Pressing the receiver to his right ear with his left hand, Ericson scribbled away on a yellow legal pad.

"Oh, I know, it's expensive," the 31-year-old was saying as he wrote.

Turned out his neighbor was having trouble filing a claim with the state insurance his wife has because she's a teacher. Ericson promised he'd check it out right away. It would be his project this afternoon -- the first full day of his new job.

But as Ericson flipped through a state office telephone directory, he realized he wasn't quite sure who to call. He guessed he'd start with the state insurance commissioner.

It was one of many kinks he'd have to work out during his first few days as a state representative. Ericson was one of 12 new Republicans and four Democrats sworn into office last month.

By Tuesday, he'd already found the bathrooms, the committee and conference rooms. He knew where the water cooler was.

Ericson said he'd gotten to the Capitol in time for 8 a.m. roll call, "or whatever it's called." His 6-foot-4-inch frame looked its best in a gray, checkered suit and a red tie. "The power tie," he called it. "It's popular."

He'd forgotten to remove the shred of tissue on his chin that he put there after he cut himself shaving that morning. But a fellow freshman Republican kindly pointed it out before 9 a.m.

Ericson spent his first morning on the job in his fifth-floor office reading newspapers and the bills on the agenda for the day's criminal justice committee meeting. After Monday's State-of-the-State address from Gov. Frank Keating, it was time to get down to business.

"I knew yesterday was kind of the pomp and circumstance of it all," he said.

By late morning Tuesday, Ericson was in his first criminal justice committee meeting presenting his first bill. His proposal would require people busted for running methamphetamine labs to repay the state for cleaning up the chemicals.

It passed the committee unanimously, which means he'll soon be presenting it to the entire House. That thought is enough to make him a little queasy.

But Ericson, who was an assistant district attorney in Muskogee County for two years, says it will be nothing compared to how nervous he was the first time he argued in front of a judge.

"That was nerve-racking," he said. "At least here, you're one part of a body. In court, it's just you."

The representative said he's eager to see how intense the debates are on the House floor. He doesn't like a lot of yelling.

"I don't know how personal it gets," he said. "Reasonable people can always disagree on issues. You have to be the type of person who can talk calmly about it."

On his way to the committee meeting, Ericson stopped in the rotunda to get a ham sandwich and some potato chips from workers of Oklahoma's rural electric cooperatives. But as he walked into his meeting -- scheduled 11:30-1:30 p.m. -- he got worried. No one else brought food with them. He got permission from the committee chairman before he took a bite.

Rep. Bill Paulk, D-Oklahoma City, couldn't help but poke fun anyway.

"Hey, freshmen representatives aren't allowed to eat in front of senior representatives," he told Ericson.

Ericson is one of five freshmen representatives elected last November at age 30 or younger. He shares an assistant with Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, who is 27. And 29-year-old Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, isn't too far away.

Between meetings and phone calls, the three sometimes gather to compare notes.

"So, Lance, what do you think of that baby drop-off bill?,"

Ericson says when Cargill pops his head in his office. They quickly debate the sides of the proposed legislation that would allow mothers to avoid criminal abandonment charges if they left their newborns at a hospital with 72 hours of the birth.

Ericson votes for it during committee.

The representative says another struggle will be his schedule for the next four months. He plans to spend Monday and Wednesday nights in an Oklahoma City hotel, driving home every Tuesday and Thursday to hang out with his wife, 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.

Ericson expects he'll work late Mondays and Wednesday, especially the first few weeks. After lunch Tuesday, he sat down with an incredibly fat book and tried to get to the bottom of his next-door neighbor's problem.

"I'll be working on this for a while," he said.