Era of Tumult Grips Statehouses as Power Shifts Political Hands

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

UNDER the gold dome of Massachusetts's capitol this week, the Speaker of the House resigned in disgrace, a bitter succession struggle ensued, and the Democrat who emerged as winner did so by luring every Republican in the mahogany-paneled chamber to his side.

Hardly business as usual in a state that holds its Democratic heritage as dear as its Red Sox.

But political revolutions like the one in Boston are raising the roofs in many statehouses across the nation. As similar scenarios are played out in states as diverse as California and Virginia, political experts point to a dramatic shift in the way legislatures have done business for 30 years.

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So far, the change has brewed instability and rancor, but it may also lead to new coalitions that could eventually change the political agendas of state government.

Many of the state-level brouhahas can be traced to the Republican revolution. When the GOP captured the majority in Congress a year and a half ago, it also took more than 450 statehouse seats away from Democrats and cinched control of legislatures across the South and Midwest. This rise of the Republicans at the state level has made the race for legislative seats more competitive than it has ever been.

"The whole scene is changing for a variety of reasons," says Alan Rosenthal, a political scientist at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute in New Jersey, who specializes in state legislatures. "In a number of states where the party has meant something, what seems to matter most now is a grab for power."

Among other reasons for the stalemates and increasing contentiousness in state capitals:

Term limits. In states where term limits are in effect, shrinking the number of years a politician can hold an office, ambitious lawmakers feel pressed to climb the career ladder to higher office as quickly as they can. Term limits give party leaders less control over the rank-and-file and encourage politicians to take risks, political experts say.

California - the first state to feel the impact of term limits - provides a powerful example. The State Assembly has endured two years of political wrangling over who would lead the lower chamber. The fracas, which brought lawmaking to a virtual standstill, points up the political risks legislators are willing to take under the term-limits law.

In 14 months, four Speakers wielded the gavel in the Assembly as Republicans (who won a one-seat majority in 1994) were frustrated in their efforts to name their own Speaker. During that time, two Republicans broke ranks with their party and cut deals with the Democrats to become Speaker. They would never have done so if they hadn't faced term limits, says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Center for Politics and Economics in Claremont, Calif.

Tighter ethics codes. Over the last five years, watchdog groups and the media have intensified their scrutiny of legislators' backroom politicking and their relationships with lobbyists. Ethics reform, as at the federal level, has reduced the number of after-work get-togethers and in turn heightened the level of restiveness among lawmakers.

"There's less of a sense of community in legislative bodies," says Alan Ehrenhalt, editor of Governing Magazine in Washington.

Public disaffection. Voters have sent protest messages in their zeal for outsider candidates and their rising propensity to register as Independents.

On top of a fundamental sense of being unappreciated by voters, state lawmakers also feel the pressure not to become "insiders." As a result, dealmaking and compromise is often sacrificed so lawmakers won't later be accused of flip-flopping.

While the Republican revolution reinforced a general feeling of instability in the statehouses, states where the GOP didn't quite win a majority have seen the most rancor. In those cases, the party that retains the majority is fighting to keep it, and the minority party is battling with the same intensity to gain control. Every move becomes partisan.

"The stakes rise for the minority party," says Mr. Rosenthal. "They become more interested in finding issues to run on than in passing legislation, so the elections are really fought out in the legislature as well as in the hustings."

Virginia may be the best example. The state saw some of the "most confrontational legislative sessions in memory" when bickering over trivia such as where the governor was born was combined with contentiousness on crime and education issues last year.

"It's unusual," says Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "One normally associates Virginia with gentility and courtesy, but as long as [the legislature is] closely divided, there's going to be lots of squabbling."

A near stalemate also occurred in Florida's Legislature, where the Senate is majority Republican and the House and governor are Democratic.

University of Florida political scientist Richard Scher attributes the acrimony in part to the Republicans' inexperience. After 60 years of acting as spoilers, Republicans "were thrust into leadership roles, but they didn't know how to govern," he says.

Some, though, see the turbulence in statehouses as nothing more than growing pains. Republicans will eventually become more comfortable with the reins of power, Democrats will get used to sharing their state level seats, and legislatures will begin to run smoother again, predicts Brian Weberg at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

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