By Bill Kraus
Where have all the candidates gone?
Actually, maybe the question should be, “Where have all the traditional candidates--or the candidates from traditional places--gone?"
There used to be a lot of lawyers in the state Legislature. Running for office was a way to meet people, get known, and for those who didn’t have a warm enough fire in the belly to want to seek higher and higher office, it was a way to start a law practice.
No more. The new graduates need to make money fast to pay off the debts those degrees burdened them with.
Another steady source of legislative candidates was county boards and city councils. Except for Milwaukee where candidates did just the opposite. They ran for the Legislature as a stepping stone to the city council or the county board where the pay was better, the hours shorter, and the travel nonexistent.
Legacy candidates weren’t endemic, but there were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, wives and widows in the mix too.
Farmers always were well represented as well. Most legislative work was done in the winter. Farming was not. Good fit.
The power seekers, the politically ambitious, saw the state Legislature as a stepping stone and a training ground for every political office up to and including the presidency. It also offered a kind of side door entry into the judiciary at every level.
Every incarnation of every state legislature had what the late, great Lowell Jackson called the sleaze caucus. The small minority who were in it for the money, to become members of the knife and fork club for free food and drink, or to advance a special cause or enterprise. I remember a state representative from the 1960s who went to the trouble to get elected so he could get the Madison campus to accept English course credits earned by students elsewhere in the state system.
Today’s version of this group is less material, more ideological, but like those who preceded them, their interest in the business of governing is not high. Their causes are more toxic than credit transfers, and their contribution to the general welfare is no place on their priority lists.
They gave the place a bad name, but, until recently, had no real influence on the business at hand.
Without rendering any qualitative judgments it is noticeable that the pipelines for the upwardly mobile are a lot emptier than they used to be, and there are more careerists in the capitol than there used to be as well. An empty governor’s seat attracted no candidates from the state Legislature in 2010, which is odd, and an increasing number of state legislators seem to have settled in for the long run. It’s a job.
Another factor that affects both the numbers and characters of state legislative candidates is the wrenching changes in the electoral process.
The parties that were the main recruiters, slaters, funders, and campaign managers are none of the above.
The special interests are certainly a factor in the financing of campaigns which, in turn, brings a kind of beholdenism into the process especially in those few races where candidates from both parties have any kind of a chance of winning.
And in the more prevalent safe districts the fine Italian hands of the legislative leaders and their handmaidens are clearly in play. What legislative leaders want is followers. There seem to be a lot more followers than there were. The rebellious maverick population is way down these days.
The money needs are higher in the unsafe districts, and the public abuse by the know nothings and the anarchists has not abated, which has always been a barrier to widespread entry into what I always considered an honorable trade.
All of these changes are pretty obvious. Whether they are more good than bad or vice versa depends on how each of us rates the talent level of those we are putting in power. Is this honorable, crucially important trade attracting superior people? This is the most important question to ask in an age of endemic outsourcing.
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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board