Since we last published a list of 12 state legislators to watch in January 2012, we’ve seen one legislator rocket to national stardom, two abruptly, and voluntarily, leave politics altogether and the rest continue to soldier on in the political trenches.
Our most prescient choice of a rising star was Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, who attracted national attention when she held an 11-hour filibuster against a bill that would have curbed abortions in the state. She succeeded in running out the clock and killing the measure, but the GOP-backed bill later won passage in a special session. Although she lost the policy fight, the dramatic filibuster raised Davis’ profile so much that she has parlayed that attention into a gubernatorial run in 2014—a campaign that is sure to excite grassroot Democrats and national donors, but which remains an uphill climb in a solidly Republican state.
Another member of our list who’s running for governor in 2014 is South Carolina state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat. It will be his second go-round, having lost by a surprisingly narrow margin to now Republican Gov. Nikki Haley in 2010. The race is considered competitive, at least for a Republican-held governorship in a strongly red state.
When we put Democratic state Rep. Darrin Williams of Arkansas on our list, he was poised to become the state’s first African-American speaker. But in 2012, the GOP won control of both chambers of the legislature, so that career trajectory was short-circuited. Instead, Williams joined other Democrats in supporting a more moderate Republican alternative as speaker and was rewarded with a variety of leadership roles.
In Florida, House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican, will be term-limited out of the chamber at the end of 2014. But it’s been an eventful two years in the speaker’s chair. Most notably, Weatherford successfully derailed an attempt by GOP Gov. Rick Scott to expand Medicaid. He also spearheaded legislation to help the University of Florida create an online bachelor’s degree program. It launches this month.
Meanwhile, two of our 12 chosen legislators decided to leave politics on their own terms. One is former Republican state Rep. John Kriesel of Minnesota, who lost both legs to a roadside bomb while serving in Iraq. He won an upset victory in a Democratic-leaning state House district. But his maverick stances—a willingness to consider some taxes, opposition to some GOP-backed budget cuts and his support for same-sex marriage—put him at odds with Republican leaders. In March 2012, he announced that he would not seek another term. “My children asked me not to,” he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I could not look them in the eye and say that after all they sacrificed, after me being gone for so long, I wouldn’t quit.” Since then, Kriesel has written a well received memoir. He has a job counseling veterans, does guest host gigs on a local radio show and coaches elementary school football.
The other legislator from our list to leave office is Republican state Rep. Dan Winslow of Massachusetts, who resigned his seat in mid-2013 to become a senior executive with software company Rimini Street Inc. After becoming a rare Republican star in an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, Winslow ran in the special election primary to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated when John Kerry became secretary of state. Winslow finished a distant third.
More than anything, Winslow says, his decision to return to the private sector came down to money. The Senate campaign saddled him with a six-figure debt, and “with three tuitions to pay, my wife and I realized that I would need to take a pass” on an open attorney general’s seat that was coming up in 2014. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I hope it’s public service in Massachusetts—with no more tuitions.”