There’s a tradition that happens right before the start of every legislative session: retirement announcements. Right now, as the session begins, the list of retirees (excluding those members who are seeking another office within the legislature) stands at around 20. While there are some long-serving members on the list, most of the attention has gone to some young members who are stepping down after only a few terms.
Legislators who leave public service “too soon” come from both parties, but they have many attributes in common — they’re thoughtful, respectful, don’t promote themselves over their constituents’ needs, and work toward solutions, often crossing the aisle to do so.
Instead of mourning the loss of young, talented legislators, maybe we should be looking at the opportunity that their stepping down brings: the potential for additional young, talented legislators to step in and take a turn crafting our laws.
What mix do we want?
But while we’re at it, while we’re evaluating the next wave of candidates, we also need to think about what kind of legislature we want. Do we want legislators to be experienced, midcareer professionals with families? Do we want them to be of diverse ages and incomes and backgrounds? Or do we want legislative service to be a job designed primarily for people with personal wealth, or retirees with grown children and free time?
The job description as it now stands sounds like a bad internship. “Help wanted: Must have charisma, capacity to digest large amounts of complicated information in small amount of time, ability to work with colleagues of differing beliefs, and represent diverse constituencies. Will need stamina for long meetings and late nights. Low pay. Part-time, unpredictable schedule that makes additional employment difficult. Strenuous and expensive performance review every two to four years. Rules that discourage making use of the contacts and subject matter expertise gained in office when service is over.”
Maybe the system is working just as it was designed to. Our Founding Fathers saw public service as something you did for a while, before returning to your “real” life. Maybe terrible pay is the Minnesota version of term limits.
No seat should be ‘reserved’
Only 201 people get to serve in the Minnesota Legislature every session. We should encourage as many of our citizens to serve as we can. We should have a pipeline to make sure those places of power are available to many. No seat should be “reserved” for one person for a generation.
Having a politically literate society means that we need people who have served and then take that knowledge back into our business world, our classrooms, our nonprofit boards. The more politicians you know the less mystifying and far away or foreign the process of running for office becomes. Elections allow an opportunity to bring in new blood, new ideas, every 2 or 4 years.
Great legislators have passion to advocate for an issue. Stamina to survive a long, unpredictable session. Belief to not bend to cynicism and “that’s the way it’s always been.” We need that. We need people who commit to cultivating relationships inside and outside the building. That’s how consensus is made.
So instead of mourning, let’s aim to celebrate the resignation of every legislator with as much cheer as we celebrate their election. With a thank you, a handshake, then a look to the next citizen legislator to carry the torch.
Shannon Watson is the founder of Definitely Someday, a firm that helps normal people plan for a future run for office. She has 20+ years of experience in the political arena, working on local and statewide races in Kansas, Colorado and Minnesota, as well as working for the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Minnesota Senate. Shannon has a bachelor’s degree from Wichita State University and a master’s from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She lives in St. Paul.
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