Politics

Graduation Time

When the term-limit clock starts ticking for legislators, state jobs begin to look more attractive.
by | July 2007

It's easy to see why an ambitious politician would want to be governor of New York, whatever the pitfalls of the job might be. But lieutenant governor of Oklahoma? That's a little different. As in most states, the job is a largely symbolic one, with few specific duties. And yet the field of eight candidates seeking it this year includes the state House speaker, the House minority leader and three state senators. Why would so many important people line up for the chance to fill a mostly ceremonial role?

Simple: term limits. More and more term-limited legislators--including top leaders and powerful committee chairmen--are running for just about any statewide office they can find. In Missouri, two state representatives and a senator are competing for the post of auditor. In Louisiana, four state senators are running for secretary of state. And in Florida, just about every member of the Senate leadership is seeking one statewide office or another. If the goal of term limits was to rotate offices every few years, it may be succeeding. But if the goal was to discourage politicians from making careers out of public office, that clearly is not happening.

Is that a bad thing? Perhaps not. A Senate president or House speaker may seem a little overqualified for a job like lieutenant governor, but these experienced legislators may also possess qualifications that will allow them to make more out of the position than has traditionally been the case. "You certainly get people who have a wider understanding of a broad array of policies," says Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist. "They're more accomplished than in the past when people would make a gamble for it and hope people would vote a party line."

The term-limited legislators who make it statewide tend to be those who have held a high-profile post or have championed an issue that can draw a lot of attention. In addition to serving as president of the Florida Senate, for example, Tom Lee earned lots of favorable press for his sponsorship of a lobbying reform bill. Both of these credentials are standing him in good stead right now in his campaign for the job of chief financial officer for the state.

Not every politician angling to move up fares so well. It can be painfully difficult for a term-limited legislator to find success running statewide. Given their necessarily short years of service, few are widely known outside the confines of their own districts. In California's June primary, voters turned down legislators seeking statewide office every chance they had. Of the 12 sitting members who ran, only four won and each of those was either unopposed or ran against a fellow legislator.

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