New Breed of Lawmakers Trained to Run Country
State and local politicians are younger, less genteel, more issue-oriented
BOSTON — RECENT local and state elections in the United States confirm that voters want change now. Standard meat loaf on the political menu is not popular anymore. Bring in new cooks. Change the menu now.
The new cooks are expected to come largely from local and state politics, as before. But experts predict that they will look substantially different from their predecessors now occupying the halls of Congress - and that they will set a new political menu for the nation's future.
``The people who are attracted to the state legislature are a different breed from the past,'' says Lillian Woo, a political consultant from Raleigh, N.C., who recently finished a two-year study of 16 state legislatures and 900 legislators. ``They are younger, more issue-oriented and self-selecting. The old genteel attitude of `Let's go up to the capitol and hang around for 30 years' is gone.''
She says the old-time state political party kingmaker who grooms a candidate's career is also virtually gone. Candidates may hire consultants and image makers to direct a campaign.
``But the candidates primary reason for running,'' Ms. Woo says, ``is that they care about public policy and feel they can make a difference. Most have a mission.''
Those who run for legislative office usually have been professionally successful. Forty-four percent have completed post-graduate work, far different from 20 years ago when legislators were men, more often than not, defined as self-made, educators, or from the business world.
``If these new legislators have cut their teeth at the state level, says Woo, ``and have the energy and motivation to run for Congress, they will bring a seasoned approach to legislation.''
Many legislators today can afford to put a career on hold while in office. ``The average age of a legislator is 44,'' says Woo, ``and most run first at 37.''
Today, about 30 percent of legislators are women.
WOO found that legislative priorities are changing. ``Because of the infusion of new viewpoints and backgrounds,'' she says, ``decisions are more humane, not necessarily in terms of funded social services, but in areas like worker safety and planning for the future of the environment.''
The Michigan Political Leadership Program (MPLP), at Michigan State University in East Lansing, trains public policy leaders in skills needed for office holding. Lynn Harvey, an advisory board member for MPLP, and an agricultural economist, says that county commissioners who go through the program are younger and more educated today.
``A lot of people become a commissioner with a one-issue agenda,'' says Mr. Harvey, ``such as solid-waste landfill, or taxation issues.''
He explains: ``I call these people `one-termers.' They get in office and find they have little control over the outcome of the issue. They become frustrated and don't run again, or they lose the next election because they couldn't do what they wanted to do. The pressures from citizens and vested interests can be overwhelming.''
If energetic state legislators or local politicians do run for Congress and win, Harvey thinks they will be prepared to handle the realities of down-sizing and debt reduction.
``There is a different set of decision-making skills needed by policy makers today,'' he says. ``They don't decide who to give additional money to, but who to take money from. It could be a positive thing if people carry those skills to the federal level.''
Many state legislators, even after gaining leadership roles, stay an average of 8 years, Woo says. ``Ninety percent of them are married,'' she says, ``and they miss their families. They say, that's it; I'm finished.''
With even more turnover likely in state and national offices because of term limits, legislatures and Congress will have challenges in maintaining continuity of priorities.
Says Woo, ``Legislators spend a lot of time chewing over issues debated for years. The plus side is the new ideas they bring that address current issues. Remember too that many legislative staffs pride themselves on being high level professionals and remain objective.''
Harvey says that what is needed are lawmakers who are ``lively accountants who can win political office, and are willing to give of their hide in trying to straighten out the mess.''