At local level, an influx of political rookies
Hordes of newcomers seek legislative seats in New Hampshire, Missouri and Idaho.
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Spikey-haired college senior Chris Siefken figures he'll give politics a try. He's only taking one class this semester, so why not run for state legislator?
Tracie Buckley is up for it, too. This mother of three who works at a nursing home wants seniors to have a strong voice at the state house.
Mustachioed businessman Stephen Stepanek chose running for office over perfecting his golf game partly because he's irked at the prospect of new taxes in his famously tax-averse state.
These are the fresh faces of New Hampshire's democracy. And there's a bumper crop of them this year. An astonishing 789 citizens are running for the state legislature. Certainly, political activism isn't new in New Hampshire; even in nonpresidential election years, colorful candidate signs practically outnumber weeds along state roads. But this year's candidate group is the biggest since 1976 and the second-largest since World War II.
And New Hampshire isn't alone in its explosion of civic activity. Missouri and Idaho have record numbers running for their legislatures. Other states report upticks, too.
But what would induce perfectly normal people to buy expensive voter lists with their own money, spend free time slapping labels on political junk mail, and go door-to-door pestering neighbors on weekends?
It's certainly not the money: New Hampshire's legislators get $100 per year. Often people run because they're outraged over an issue like taxes.
This year more than ever, opportunities abound. In 12 states, term limits are forcing powerful incumbents out and opening seats to newcomers. Every state has also just gone through once-a-decade redistricting. This rejiggering of political-district borders sometimes changes the mix of Republicans, Democrats, and independents in a district thus giving challengers a better shot at victory.
"Redistricting basically made every seat in New Hampshire an open seat," says longtime political operative Tom Rath. "That prompted a lot of people to say, 'Well, maybe this is my chance.' "
For instance, redistricting lumped two towns Amherst and Milford together into one district. Mr. Stepanek happens to live in Amherst and own a successful manufacturing business in Milford. He figures this gives him a head start. Plus he's willing to spend $3,000 to $4,000 of his own money on the campaign.
Like most Granite State Republicans, he's passionate about New Hampshire not having a sales or income tax. "In business, when revenues drop, the first thing you do is look at how efficiently you're running your operation," he says. "The last thing you do is raise prices" or, in New Hampshire's case, raise taxes.
He sees many ways the state can boost efficiency including better collection of current taxes. He figures fresh faces like his will bring needed new ideas to the legislature.
In Missouri, there will also be plenty of rookies: Term limits mean that 85 of the state's 197 legislators can't run for their seats again. That's raising some concerns that the legislature won't function very smoothly.
But candidates are often quick to get the hang of how politics works. Stepanek, for instance, has already learned some valuable lessons. First: Don't put up candidate signs in high roadside grass. State crews mow high grass. Although the crews usually gather up the signs before mowing and let candidates retrieve them at a nearby garage sometimes they don't.
"One time, one of my signs was shredded into about 16 million pieces," says Stepanek, laughing. He scrambled to pick them up, because "I didn't want to be accused of littering!"
If Ms. Buckley, the mom, makes it to the legislature, she'll surely stand out with her silver eyebrow ring and platform flip-flops. This Democrat hints that new taxes may be necessary. "If we want quality education, there's got to be a change," she says. "People often don't want to hear that, but it's got to happen."
Meanwhile, Mr. Siefken, the New Hampshire college student, who's clad in a powder-blue shirt with a mile-wide collar, grew up in a politically savvy family. He always figured he'd run for office someday. But that day came a little earlier than expected, when the chair of the Manchester Republicans called and said, "What are you doing tomorrow? Well, how about going down and filing for office?" So Siefken did.
Now he toes the Republican anti-tax line: A sales tax "would hurt the New Hampshire advantage," he says, referring to the fact that New Englanders flock to New Hampshire for tax-free shopping. In fact, armed with their anti-tax rallying cry, Republicans were very successful in recruiting candidates this year.
In Idaho, it was Democratic recruiting efforts that helped boost overall candidate numbers. Redistricting created some new urban area districts, which Democrats hope to win. In all, some 400 candidates are running.
Meanwhile, what do Siefken's parents think of his quest?
"My dad doesn't really get what it all means," he says, laughing and bouncing with youthful energy in his chair. "And my mom, well, she's worried it'll conflict with my schoolwork."
His sisters, though, are mostly supportive, which is fortunate. He's counting on them to be his main financial backers. Fortunately for them, his district is a small one. So the total cost of his campaign "probably won't be more than $300."