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A Capitol Idea

Edna Ellard endows UGA’s legislative aide program in memory of her husband, Jack Ellard (LLB ’35)

by Denise Horton (ABJ ’83)
photos by Nancy Evelyn (BFA '84, ABJ '86)

It was the first of dozens of constituent contacts Cassidy Stover (pictured at right) handled as a legislative aide to Rep. Keith Heard (D-Athens) during this year’s session of the Georgia General Assembly.

“A mom wrote Rep. Heard asking for an increase in the funding she receives through the Mental Retardation Waiver Program,” explains Stover, a senior majoring in child and family development. “I called all of these places I had never known existed to find out which was the correct agency.”

In the final days of the session, Stover learned that her efforts had been successful.

“I was finally able to follow up with the person responsible,” she says. “And the mom not only received an increase in funding, it was also made retroactive.”

Stover was one of five Family and Consumer Sciences students who were selected through a competitive process to participate this year in the Glenn Wilson “Jack” Ellard Legislative Aide Program. The program, which originated in 1983, was endowed in 2005 by Edna Ellard in memory of her late husband, Jack Ellard (LLB ’35), who served as clerk of the Georgia House of Representatives for 33 years.

To FACS Dean Sharon Y. Nickols, the Ellard Legislative Aide Program provides an opportunity for students to learn the nuts and bolts of lawmaking, but, more importantly, to learn the higher calling of public service.

“Since its inception, the Legislative Aide Program has served as a signature professional development opportunity for our students,” she says. “Mrs. Ellard’s generous gift endowing the program ensures that they will have the opportunity to benefit from the example Jack Ellard set as a servant of the public and to honor his commitment to public policy.”

“My Jack always said serving as clerk was better than being governor,” Mrs. Ellard recalls with a chuckle. “He was a brilliant man, but very quiet and reserved.”

Ellard was named clerk in 1959 by then-Gov. Ernest Vandiver and was successfully re-elected to the post after that, serving as clerk during the administrations of seven Georgia governors. Prior to beginning his tenure as clerk, Ellard served two terms as a state senator (1951-52 and 1957-58).

“Jack always had wonderful friends,” Mrs. Ellard says. “He advised a lot of people through the years. In particular, he always advised his friends not to get swept away by politics.”

Perhaps he would make an exception, however, in the case of the FACS legislative aides, who found the experience to be an eye opener.

“I wasn’t really interested in politics before I became a legislative aide,” says Laura Bland, who served Rep. Jane Kidd (ABJ ’75) (D-Athens). “I decided to apply for the program because I wanted to know how the system works and to gain some networking and professional skills.”

Bland, a senior consumer journalism major who plans to earn a master’s in public health, says she gained far more than expected from the experience.

“I learned 500 percent more than I expected,” she says. “Rep. Kidd really took care of me and ensured that I met the most amazing people and learned so much about the issues.”

Kidd says she’s glad Bland and the other legislative aides learned about the complexity and difficulty of passing laws in Georgia, and she’s grateful for the help they provided.

“The aides are able to field telephone calls, monitor and respond to thousands of e-mail messages, process the mail and respond to the many invitations we receive,” says Kidd. “Having an aide from UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences is the envy of every legislator here.”

Likewise, Sen. Brian Kemp (BSA ’87) (R-Athens) says the aides are an integral part of a successful session.

“It’s always encouraging to know that if you need something done the aides are there and more than willing to go above and beyond their required duties to get the task done,” he says. “Whether it’s getting ready for committee meetings or helping with constituent response, I know I can always count on the aides.”

Kemp’s aide, Bethany Whetzel, says her friends chuckled when she talked about the major education bills coming up in the Georgia Senate or commented about the “heated debate on the floor,” but the senior child and family development major says she felt like she was a part of Georgia history.

“You’re just immersed in a whole different culture,” she says. Each day she listened to the live broadcast of the Senate—turning up the volume when discussion turned to bills of particular interest to Sen. Kemp—while answering constituent concerns.

Senior Amanda Stults’ experience as a legislative aide was slightly different from her fellow students. Rather than working with only one legislator or senator, Stults worked with the three chairs and the treasurer of the Women’s Legislative Caucus, a bipartisan group that focuses on providing support for legislation that benefits women, children and families. In particular, the caucus hosted weekly luncheons for female legislators that included talks by prominent speakers.

While managing the logistics of the luncheons, Stults learned the value of planning ahead.

“It took a couple of days to do anything because all three of the chairs were signing off on it,” she says. “I tried to make sure there were absolutely no mistakes in anything because when a mistake happened, you had to start over again gaining all three signatures on the corrected information.”

Stults, a child and family development major who also is earning teacher certification, had considered politics as a part of her future plans even before becoming a legislative aide. Her experience reinforced those plans.

“After I teach for a few years, I want to earn a master’s in education policy and become a principal. Then, I’d like to move into the elected arena,” she says. “I’d like to come back to the legislature as a representative or senator, but my ultimate goal is to be the state school superintendent because I view that as one of the most powerful positions in government.”

Senior Gina Vose, a nutrition major, went to the General Assembly recalling the “I’m Just A Bill” song from childhood—one of ABC’s “Schoolhouse Rock” educational cartoons—and concerned that she wouldn’t be able to meet the expectations of Sen. Ralph Hudgens (R-Comer) and his staff. Her experience was a pleasant surprise.

“This was one of the best experiences of my life,” says Vose, who will begin a master’s in nursing in the fall. “Working there was really uplifting, and I felt like I was a part of something truly amazing. It’s one thing to know that song, but it’s another to really experience what it takes for a bill to become law.”

If the experience of the 110 legislatives aides who have preceded them is any indication, the FACS students who completed their stints in 2006 will look back on their time in the Georgia General Assembly as a life-changing experience.

Debbie Redeker Phillips (BSHE ’85, MS ’87) was a legislative aide in 1986, the third year of the program.

“No other opportunity gives you such a total and complete exposure to the movers and shakers in the state of Georgia,” says Phillips, who owns The Quadrillion, a management firm headquartered in Stockbridge. “I don’t think any other internship or co-op program provides as great an opportunity for real-world experience without a lot of risk.”

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photos by Nancy Evelyn

Click on image to enlarge

While working for Rep. Jane Kidd (ABJ ’75) (above right), Laura Bland (left) met a physician who has initiated a campaign to end childhood obesity. Bland began volunteer work with the program after she finished her term as a legislative aide.

“My Jack always said serving as clerk was better than being governor.” —Edna Ellard (photo by Rick O'Quinn)

Gina Vose, aide to Sen. Ralph Hudgins, improved her note-taking skills during time spent in committee meetings.

Bethany Whetzel (above left), aide to Sen. Brian Kemp