Fall's other big prize: statehouses

Much is riding on the fight to control state legislatures - including the right to redraw maps for seats in Congress.

Laurent Soucie has been a beekeeper, firefighter, schoolteacher, assistant shepherd, factory worker, and - for two years - professional wrestler. Now he wants to add one more line to his rsum: state assemblyman.

If he is elected to represent a 50,000-person district north of Madison, Wis., Mr. Soucie could help the Democrats gain control of the Wisconsin Assembly. He probably won't make the cover of Newsweek or be the subject of a tart Jay Leno monologue, but his race - and hundreds of low-profile state contests like it - could help determine the future balance of power in the United States.

While public attention is riveted on the expected face-off between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the unsung battle for control of the nation's statehouses may prove to be just as pivotal - thanks to once-a-decade congressional redistricting and a long-term shift of power toward the states.

"The balance of power is incredibly even between the two parties at this moment," says Republican National Committee strategist Tom Cole.

"The party that does the best down the ballot in this cycle is going to do the best in the next 10 years," he says.

The numbers reflect that balance. Democrats control 19 legislatures, Republicans 18, and another 12 are split. In perhaps 15 states, the majorities are narrow enough that both parties have a chance at taking a majority in November elections. Among them are big states such as Texas, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and, of course, Soucie's Wisconsin.

"The legislature could change hands in any state where the margin is close now," says William Pound of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "And because our politics are very balanced today, that's a lot of them."

So what gives the Laurent Soucies of the world so much control over the future of national politics?

The redistricting rule

A big factor is that state legislatures, armed with new Census numbers, are about to redraw the lines that define congressional districts. Control over the redistricting process gives a party such an advantage that these state elections will probably determine who holds a majority in the House of Representatives for the next decade, say analysts in both parties.

Each district must have about the same number of people in it. But by drawing the lines so that one's political opponents are concentrated in a few districts, those controlling the process can dramatically help their chances at winning more seats.

According to estimates by the Republican National Committee, which are similar to Democratic estimates, a shift of as few as 17 state legislative seats and two governorships could give the GOP an advantage of 20 more seats in the US House.

Conversely, Democrats could see a 20-seat gain in the House by picking up 35 state legislative seats and a governorship. Given the wire-thin margin of the GOP's House majority now - five seats - even a smaller shift could have big implications for national politics.

"In so many ways, redistricting will determine the future control of Congress," says Kevin Mack, who heads the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "It makes it very disconcerting for members of Congress that their future rests in the hands of 400 to 500 state legislators that they don't know."

But beyond this electoral maneuvering lie big policy issues. Amid an emphasis on shifting power away from the federal government - escalated in the past five years of Republican-controlled Congresses - state and local governments have more authority over public policy than at any time since the New Deal.

Observers say the real action on issues like education and healthcare is happening in places like Lansing, Mich.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Harrisburg, Pa. - anywhere but Washington. "There's no question that states are dealing with the most important issues of our time," says Mr. Mack.

Where the states reign

Consider some of the issues on which Congress is a mere back-up player:

*For all the talk of education reform in national campaigns, the real power over education policy lies outside Washington. It is a top issue in all 50 statehouses. "Most of the decisions about classroom standards, testing, and issues like charter schools and vouchers are being decided at the state and local level," says Mr. Pound, adding that discussion of such issues at the national level is usually just that: discussion.

*HMO regulation may be stalled in the nation's capital, but it is moving along nicely in Washington State. Legislatures where a patient's bill of rights is under debate include just about every state where such a law isn't already in place - including Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and a passel of others.

*Privacy issues involving the Internet are playing out in states such as Maryland, where regulation is under debate. And states are trying to sort out issues of whether sales taxes should apply to purchases made over the Internet.

Despite these common threads, the local nature of most of these races makes nationwide strategy a perilous business for political parties. For example, Soucie, the former wrestler in Wisconsin, first got involved in local politics by taking a position against the building of a bridge. Now, his top campaign issues include saving family farms - hardly an issue expected to be at the forefront of fellow Democrat Al Gore's campaign.

"Boilerplate stuff out of Washington isn't going to go in Oregon or Iowa," says political scientist Alan Rosenthal of the Eagleton Institute in New Jersey.

The Soucie factor

Soucie, who as a child met John F. Kennedy and has had a nagging interest in public service ever since, now goes door to door handing out campaign literature on the two or three days a week he isn't substitute-teaching.

In Wisconsin, where Democrats hold a one-seat majority in the Senate and need only a five-seat gain to take control of the Assembly, they have ample hope in Soucie, even though he is challenging a well-known 10-year Republican incumbent.

On hearing the inevitable comparisons to Jesse Ventura, the former wrestler-cum-governor of Minnesota, Soucie merely points out that he beat Ventura in the ring.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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