by Karl Kurtz
Today's news brought three stories about six legislators who have recently announced that they are not planning to run for reelection. This is filing deadline season in a number of states, so it's not unusual to read about retiring legislators, especially in a redistricting year when voluntary turnover in legislatures is higher than normal. This group of stories, from legislatures at opposite ends of the institutional spectrum--Congress on one end and Utah and Idaho on the other--was of particular interest because of the commentary from the incumbents about their lives and their institutions.
First is a wrapup story in the New York Times about the recently announced departures of three veteran members of Congress (total combined experience of 102 years), Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington (ranking Democrat on the House appropriations committee) and Rep. David Dreier of California (chair of the House rules committee). Some of Dreier's remarks were particularly insightful:
Despite objections by some to such longevity in office, Congress remains a place where experience matters, not just in the advancement seniority brings, but in knowing how to get things done and navigate a system built partially on personal relationships and tradition.
“All three of us were what I call institutional memory,” said Mr. Dreier.... “We need to get new blood in Congress and we’ve clearly got that. But we also need some institutional memory.”
The steady stream of retirements from Congress has given new weight to the idea that fierce partisanship and gridlock have made serving no longer the enjoyable experience it once was....
Mr. Dreier acknowledges that life on Capitol Hill has changed. But he disputes the notion that the atmosphere has never been worse....
“Rather than worse, I say it is different than it was,” said Mr. Dreier. “One of the reasons that it is different is that society is different than it was three decades ago. This institution is a reflection of society. We have a very divided society, more so than it has been. I don’t want to be the judge and say it is worse. There are a lot of things we have accomplished on a bipartisan basis.”
The departures from the legislature announced in Utah and Idaho were more about the problems of balancing personal and professional life with legislative service. Brian Cronin, a young, two-term Democrat from Boise, said this in his announcement that he would not seek a third term:
I believe in the concept of a citizen’s legislature: a lawmaking body made up of people from all walks of life who are not professional politicians but members of diverse communities. Such people come together for a few months out of the year to set policy for the state but remain rooted in their communities, close to the people they represent. In practice, the unfortunate reality is that the job of legislator can usually only be performed by those whose uncommon circumstances allow them to leave their professions (and in some cases, their homes and families) for several months out of the year. Even outside of the legislative session, demands on a legislator’s time are not trivial.
I feel fortunate, as a business owner, to have had some degree of flexibility and the wherewithal to serve as I could. I was partly driven by a determination to bring perspectives that, due to the practical limitations of who can serve, seemed underrepresented in the Statehouse—those of someone raising a young family; working as an entrepreneur in the “new economy”; and seeking to protect, preserve, and further enhance our unique quality of life.
In Utah, House Minority Leader David Litvack and Senate Minority Whip Karen Morgan both announced yesterday that they would not run again. They cited family pressures:
Both said they wanted to spend more time with their families. For Litvack, to be with his wife and two children. For Morgan, to spend time with her three grandchildren
"Last week, I missed a talent show. Last Wednesday, we’re here until 11 p.m. and when I got home, the kids were already asleep," Litvack said. "The next morning, I left at 6:45 a.m. and kissed my kids, who were still sleeping."
Morgan — who was asked to run for governor and declined — said her 16 years in the Legislature was long enough.
"I have a big family and darling grandchildren I love spending time with," she said. "They are my highest priority."
The Utah story in The Salt Lake City Tribune concluded with this touching anecdote:
Litvack said when he told his son he was retiring, he said he was somewhat surprised — and moved — by what his response was.
"He said — and I’m paraphrasing — ‘Who is going to fix things?’ " Litvack said. " ‘Who is going to help people?’ "
"And if that’s his impression, then that makes me very proud."