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What’s Driving the Great Resignation Among Legislators?

A number of states are seeing dozens of lawmakers retire all at once. Reasons differ, but there’s wide agreement partisanship has poisoned the atmosphere.

An illuminated “exit” sign mounted to the ceiling.
(Piotr Zajda/Shutterstock)
Kathy Bernier has had enough. She’s one of the rare Republicans willing to call the endless and unsuccessful hunt for voter fraud or other signs of rigging the 2020 election a “charade.” She chairs the Wisconsin Senate’s elections committee and announced in January that she won’t seek another term. “I cannot function on hearsay, conspiracies, innuendos, none of that,” Bernier said. “I have to function on the facts."

Over on the Assembly side in Wisconsin, Joe Sanfelippo is vice chair of the elections committee. Immediately after the last election, he suggested that electors could choose to grant their votes to Donald Trump. (Wisconsin was carried by Joe Biden.) More recently, Sanfelippo called for removing most of the leadership of the Wisconsin Elections Commission and now wants them prosecuted. Sanfelippo, too, is stepping down in disgust. “I’ve got no patience to work in an Assembly that has such little self-respect that they don’t care whether the laws they passed are enforced or not,” Sanfelippo said.

Bernier and Sanfelippo are among nearly 30 Wisconsin legislators who have decided not to run for re-election this year. There’s a mass exodus across the Upper Midwest, with dozens of legislators retiring in neighboring Iowa and Minnesota as well. Term-limit states out West, including Arizona and California, are also watching lawmakers head for the exits by the score. In Montana, a third of the Legislature is leaving.

“We talk about the Great Resignation that’s happened over the past two years in the private sector, but there’s also something to that in state legislatures,” says Benjamin Melusky, a political scientist at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

With 6,600 legislative seats up this year, there were bound to be hundreds of retirements nationwide. Over the past decade, more than 1,000 legislators have retired, on average, in even-numbered years, according to Ballotpedia. Some lawmakers have gotten older, some figure they’ve been around long enough and a large number are ready to pursue other offices. There are always more departures in a post-redistricting year, when plenty of incumbents suddenly find themselves in less friendly, or at least less familiar, territory.

But there are large numbers of legislators who don’t shy away from saying bluntly that the job, at this point, sucks.

“The political atmosphere is something you really can’t look past,” says Jim Steineke, the majority leader in the Wisconsin Assembly, who is retiring. “The political atmosphere not only in our state but nationally is pretty toxic. Over time, it just wears on people.”

Wisconsin Republicans received national attention a decade ago for passing Act 10, a bill that ended collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Of the 132 legislators who voted on that bill, no more than 16 will still be in office next January, assuming they all win re-election.

“Part of the ‘enough’ strain of this is the kind of environment we’re in,” says J.R. Ross, editor of “For Republicans, a decade ago, they were heroes at local events. They’d get lauded for Act 10, for making Wisconsin a right-to-work state, for passing abortion restrictions. Now they get grief constantly about, ‘Why aren’t you fighting harder for Donald Trump?’”

Bad Times for Democrats

In Iowa, 40 percent of Democrats in the state House are calling it quits. As in Wisconsin, they’ve been in the minority for more than a decade and have essentially no chance of regaining power in the foreseeable future, certainly not this year. “Basically, because Democrats are so packed into these (urban) districts, that gives Republicans an advantage in a lot of other districts,” says Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.

Across the country, many of the few remaining Democrats occupying legislative districts that were carried by Trump in 2020 are calling it quits, including the last such House members in Iowa. Tennessee state Rep. John Mark Windle, who has represented an area east of Nashville for three decades, is the last Democrat to hold a Trump district in the state but now he’s running as an independent. Fifteen other Tennessee representatives are retiring.

“The wear and tear on a minority member is tangible,” says Mike Carroll, a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House who is retiring.

Some Democrats are quitting rather than face a difficult environment this year. Republicans lost more than 300 legislative seats in 2018, during the Trump midterm, while Democrats lost about 700 in 2010, during Barack Obama’s first midterm. Democrats are not only being wiped out in rural America but may have a hard time holding onto suburban seats they won narrowly during Trump’s presidency, Melusky says.

An Honor but Not Much Fun

Keith Ingram first walked onto the floor of the Arkansas Senate when he was 8 years old. His father served in the chamber for almost 20 years and the Democrat now sits in the same seat once occupied by his father, as well as his brother. “I was in awe of the Senate and the people who served in it,” he says.

Ingram, Carroll and other retiring legislators talk about what an honor it’s been to serve. They gladly point out specific projects they were able to help get built in their districts, or policies they helped enact (or block). But no one seems to find the work as congenial or collegial as it used to be. “Civility has decreased and it’s just a different place than when I first started,” Ingram says. “As much as we have decried Washington-style politics, it has seeped into the Arkansas Legislature.”

It’s not just members of minority caucuses who are unhappy. Across the country, no fewer than 30 chamber leaders are stepping down, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many of them preside in term-limit states, but not all. Steineke said that at the end of this year, he will tie the record for longest-serving majority leader in the Wisconsin Assembly. “That’s not a record I have any interest in breaking,” he says.

Although Steineke’s party has firm control of the Legislature, relations with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers have been difficult. The governor and legislative leaders sometimes go months without even speaking. Vetoes are almost more common than not. Evers is considered one of the nation’s most vulnerable governors this year, but his loss is not a sure thing. “Looking at the possibility of having a Republican governor is something I think everybody on the Republican side would enjoy, but it just wasn’t enough to keep me around for another session or two,” Steineke says.

Add it all up — less favorable districts after redistricting, lousy pay, the difficulty of placating the base or ever finding common ground with the other side and, for Democrats, the prospect of a tough election year — and maybe it’s not such a surprise that so many legislators think this is the right moment to quit.

“All of these factors are screaming that there is going to be a lot of upheaval at the legislative level,” Melusky says.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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