Term Limits Give Neophytes Legs to Run
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 1998; Page A01
VAN BUREN, Ark. Jack Norton usually wears overalls on his chicken farm in this far western part of the state, but one recent muggy night, he dusted off his best tweed jacket and nervously tried to persuade his neighbors to send him to Little Rock next year as their representative in the state legislature.
"This is my very first campaign speech and I worked on the farm all day so I didn't have much time to practice with the cows and chickens," Norton, 64, told the 40 or so members of the local Farm Bureau, one of the most powerful political lobbies in the state. The Democrat briefly listed his wife's hobbies, his community service and his church activities, and concluded his 5-minute presentation by vowing to work for "education, good roads, and common sense in government."
What Norton couldn't boast about was his political experience, because he doesn't have much, and he's not alone this election cycle in Arkansas. As a result of a 1992 term limits law, an extraordinary one-half of the 100-seat Arkansas House will open up this year, inspiring dozens of politically green farmers, grandmothers and budding lawyers not even out of school to hit the pie-supper circuit in search of votes.
"This is precisely how it is supposed to work, people running for office who have experience from the real world, a citizen government representative of those who elect them," said Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, a Washington lobbying group.
But a senior statehouse official in Little Rock sees it differently: "It's going to be like 'Animal House' up here next year when these people descend. ... I don't think the voters have any idea what they have done."
Just as the national trend to impose term limits appears to be cooling, Arkansas and other states are confronting the practical effects of laws passed in the early 1990s, when the movement was at its peak. In statehouses across the country, more than 200 legislators this year alone are being forced to step down as result of term limits laws. About one-third of the nation's 7,400 state legislators in 18 states are serving under term limits, causing politicians to reevaluate their careers, and state officials to figure out how to absorb the newcomers into systems traditionally run by seniority.
How states manage the wholesale turnover of these legislatures in the next few years could have a profound effect on whether the term-limit effort nationwide can regain momentum.
Opponents argue that, with the turnover, will come a frightening collective lack of experience in state government, ultimately hurting constituents as novices attempt to master the bureaucratic machinery. In Arkansas, House members are limited to six years of service in a legislature that sits on average only 60 days every two years, arguably not much time for on-the-job training. (In two years, roughly one-third of Arkansas's 35 senators will be forced to retire.)
Even many of those here who are benefiting from the new law are skeptical. "You have to learn how to get recognized on the floor before you can even begin to convince colleagues to vote our way," said Manford Burris, a Democratic candidate. "And then, before you know it, you're a lame duck."
Burris was one of the dozen candidates from three rural districts who showed up at the Crawford County Farm Bureau to individually meet the farmers in 10-minute intervals while the other waited in another room. He is vying to replace the chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, but Burris is certain he cannot fill his shoes. In his 24 years, popular Rep. Edward S. Thicksten delivered to his rural district countless paved roads, nutrition programs for the elderly, funding for a local community college and an adult education center.
"It takes a while to cultivate the right connections to bring home what you're supposed be bringing back home," said Burris, a former mayor of Alma. He assured the farm group that he is one who has the experience it takes because he's been to Little Rock asking for money before.
Still, vocal supporters of term limits nationwide have been able to capitalize on the country's growing distrust of politicians to argue that there is no accountability for those who stay around too long. Given the political climate, many members of Congress have vowed to limit their tenure, although there is no law requiring them to do so. The Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that, that absent a constitutional amendment, neither the states nor Congress could limit terms for members of Congress.
In the states, however, the laws are taking effect. In the Michigan House, two-thirds of the 110-member legislature will turn over this year, including six of the 13-member Detroit delegation. Seven of the eight leaders of the Colorado legislature are being forced out this year, including the House speaker and the Senate president, as well as eight of the 10 House committee chairs. One-third of the Oregon House is retiring.
California and Maine, the two states that first implemented term limits in 1996, will have additional turnover: an aggregate of 27 seats in California Assembly and Senate, as well as 11 in the Maine House, and one in the Senate. Florida and Ohio will face significant turnover in 2000. Mississippi and Nebraska are expected to put the term limits referendum on the ballot shortly.
Advocates point to the productivity of the 40-percent-new Maine legislature last year in passing the state's budget faster than any other session in recent memory, and suggested that the turnover created the opportunity for electing the body's first female House speaker. And in a study of California's term limits, the University of California's Mark Petracca concluded that the regular availability of open seats has helped the number of women and minorities elected to the legislature, despite concerns that term limits would force minorities from office.
Proponents hope that term limits also will start to embolden legislators to take risks and push ethics reforms, because they will not have to answer to special interests that might then try to defeat them. In other words, they will be far less worried about reelection.
For Arkansas Republicans experienced or not this election year presents an opportunity of a lifetime to affect policy by making inroads into the Democratic-controlled House. There is little question that Democrats will retain their majority in the House, but Republicans emphasize that for them, there is nowhere to go but up in a body where Democrats control 86 of 100 seats.
"We are in play," says Richard Bearden, GOP state party executive director, "and we're combating images of the good ol' boy system with young, attractive candidates."
Such candidates, he said, include Mary Beth Green, 41, a speech pathologist and mother of five, who told her Farm Bureau audience that she was running for office in her spare time. And lawyer Don Jenkins, 33, who anticipated he would have to wait in line a few more years before his turn came.
The election comes at a time when Democrats seem to be losing their historic grip on the state. For one, Republicans are banking that popular Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) will have long political coattails. In addition, favorite son Bill Clinton will not be on the ballot this year.
And even if they pick up a only handful of seats, Republicans remain optimistic that with the old-time Democratic legislative power structure dismantled, the playing field will be leveled if only a bit. "We will all be new," said Sarah Agee, another first-time GOP candidate from this rural area, who stopped by the Farm Bureau before making the 2½-hour drive to Little Rock to baby-sit her grandchildren. "Democrats will have to work with us to get things done."
State Democratic Party officials do not seem overly concerned that they too are in play. Vaughn McQuary, the new Arkansas party chairman, said that "it would take something akin to a natural disaster for Republicans to make any kind of significant gains."
The local GOP began focusing on the 1998 election immediately after the term-limits bill was passed, when it became clear that a number of Democrats in conservative districts were losing their seats. Enlisting the help of Republican elected officials such as Huckabee, the party identified potential candidates all over the state and heavily recruited them to run through mailings, phone calls and county meetings.
Don Jenkins was one of them. A party activist, Jenkins seized the opportunity to try the unthinkable: running as a Republican in a rural district that traditionally has voted Democratic.
"It seems like I'm out at a pie supper every night trying to convince people that they can vote Republican," said Jenkins, who said he paid $16 for a coconut cream pie the other night, but has seen some candidates in this competitive atmosphere pay $200 just to curry votes.
"I get attention. People seem to be listening. They say, 'It's really nice to see a fresh face. We're tired of those politicians.' Now, whether that will translate into votes, who knows?"
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company