Politicians Who Are Downwardly Mobile, By Choice or Not

Posted July 13, 2005 at 6:40pm

By the time then-Rep. Jim Barcia (D-Mich.) was redistricted out of his House seat in 2002, he’d already put in 26 years in public office. He could have tried to return to Congress, taken up lobbying — or started a whole new career.

[IMGCAP(1)]Instead, Barcia decided to run for the state Senate, a decision that made him one of a small but notable group of downwardly mobile politicians.

In recent years, several Members of Congress have bounced back from defeat, redistricting changes or failed bids for higher office by taking positions in the state Legislature or in local government. In addition to Barcia, the list includes former Reps. Leslie Byrne (D-Va.), Hal Daub (R-Neb.), Roy Dyson (D-Md.), Eric Fingerhut (D-Ohio), Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), Rep. Arthur Ravenel (R-S.C.), Bill Schuette (R-Mich.) and ex-Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R-N.H.). And former Rep. Steve Kuykendall (R-Calif.) lost a bid for the state Senate last fall.

This sort of career path was common in the 19th century, when many politicians viewed service in Congress as a

way station to a more desirable career in state politics. But the federal government long ago overtook state and local government as the Big Kahuna in American politics.

Still, several ex-Members of Congress said their new lower office offered benefits that Congress could not.

While it was “painful” to leave his friends and mentors in Congress, Barcia said he was pleased to win plum committee assignments in the state Senate, thanks to seniority he’d accumulated earlier in his career. And in a chamber of just 38, “there’s an opportunity to be effective quickly,” he said.

Fingerhut added that state-level politics, while hardly a love-fest, is less riven by hard-edged partisanship than Congress is.

“We’re relatively collegial, and we know each other pretty well,” he said.

Though there is little sign that a flood of former Members are hankering for lower office, there is evidence that politicians are moving between levels of government with increasing fluidity. The reason: term limits for state legislators.

Beginning in 1990, 16 states approved legislative term limits, and by now, most have taken effect. Facing a glut of incumbent-friendly Congressional districts, a small but growing number of term-limited state Senators are running for the state House. Other legislators are running for county and city positions.

“The assertion that proponents of term limits make is that they reduce political careerism,” said John Straayer, a Colorado State University political scientist who has interviewed state legislators about the effects of term limits. “But term limits have actually enlarged the pool of people who want to be in politics and stay there.”

A window into this process comes from a survey of 3,000 legislators conducted in 2002 by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. When the responses are separated into states with and without legislative term limits, the differences are striking.

Asked about their future career plans, 13 percent of state Senators in term-limited states said they were considering a run for the lower chamber, compared to just 1 percent in non-term-limited states. And 14 percent of those in term-limited states — but only 4 percent of those in non-term-limited states — said they were considering a run for local office. (State House Members in term-limited states were also twice as likely to be considering running for the state Senate.)

While downwardly mobile politicians are still in the minority, the pattern has attracted notice of candidate recruiters in both parties.

The desire to keep a job — and the power that comes with it — is certainly one motivation for running for lower office. But SLLF official Thom Little doesn’t think self-interest is the only issue.

“I really do believe that most legislators want to be public servants — and if one door closes, you have to open another,” he said.

As state Senate president in Arkansas, Jay Bradford (D) initially began talking about running for the state House to stave off lame-duck status, he said. But as the end of his Senate term approached, he decided to do it, and he won.

In California, Democratic state Sen. Betty Karnette said that she ran for the state Assembly because “government comes to me easily. If I was not a legislator, I would be involved either in the city council or the school board. It’s a calling.”

Other transitions are the product of circumstance. Jodie Mahony, an Arkansas Democrat, said he would have retired after being term limited in the state Senate, but instead he ran for the state House — where he had served earlier in his career — after a friend he’d encouraged to run for the seat decided to seek Mahony’s vacated Senate seat instead.

Daub, who was twice elected mayor of Omaha, goes so far as to challenge the assumption that state and local government is “lower” than Congress. He considers a mayor’s job to be a combination of CEO, CFO and COO, answerable to hundreds of thousands of constituents.

Though Daub has now moved on to head the American Health Care Association, he urged more Members to run for state and local positions.

“I think I was a much more effective mayor of a home-rule charter city because I had federal experience,” he said.

To be sure, making the transition is not always easy. Republican Bob Seale, a one-time Nevada state Treasurer who later won an Assembly seat, had to adjust from heading an office of 30 to getting by with a single staffer — even though his portfolio of issues had expanded greatly.

And in Arkansas, Bradford recalls that lobbyists who had courted him assiduously when he was Senate President snubbed him in the halls after he initially failed to win a key committee slot in the state House.

One might expect Paul Jacob, a leading term-limits advocate in the 1990s, to be distressed by the musical-chairs pattern of recent years. But Jacob said he’s not worried, arguing that term limits have fostered competition in politics and encouraged ambitious challengers to move up, or down.

Some critics might prefer cumulative term limits for all political offices, Jacob said, “but for the most part, we were looking for people not to be entrenched in any one office. If they move to another office, that’s OK with me.”

In states like Colorado — which passed legislative term limits in 1990 — these trends are in full swing. Former legislators are now serving as mayor, county commissioner and county treasurer. Others have run for local office and lost, or have won state House seats after serving in the state Senate.

When Straayer looks at many of the Colorado’s rookie lawmakers, he said, “I have a sense that an awful lot of them will never go back to what they were doing before. It’s like the former professional baseball player who tries sandlot ball for a few years before he finally goes home.”