Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

Suzanne Strassberger

Suzanne Strassberger writes about the personalities, minutiae, and back-stories behind decision-making in Springfield.

Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

The allure of being a state legislator

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Why are people willing to spend many hours shaking reluctant hands at train stops and in neighborhoods, to risk public embarrassment in candidate debates, and to eat plates of rubbery food in order to win the prize of being a state legislator?  And let's not forget about the painful groveling-for-dollars element of the campaign as they dial up friends, acquaintances of friends, friends they last saw in third grade, and their own family for money.

The motivation isn't about the money. The legislator's pay of $67,836 is above the Illinois medium household income of $53,234. But this isn't enough to feed, clothe, house, and educate a middle-class family.  It is true that some legislators pad their take-home income. Some steer business to their law offices. Some accept generous campaign contributions in return for favors. Some take bribes. But as the new legislator from House District 10 found out by experience, asking for bribes can lead to arrest. Generous campaign contributions and legal business usually don't arrive until after the legislator has a track record of success. 

The candidates are not in the fight because of the prestige. On the day after State Senator Barack Obama won election to become the junior Senator from Illinois, then Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee John Cullerton told a story as Obama took his committee seat. "One day as I left a meeting in D.C., a lady asked me what my job was. I said Senator. She was impressed and asked me what state I represented. When I replied that I was a State Senator, she turned away, clearly disappointed, and said 'I thought you were a Real Senator." Well, today, I am happy to report that we have a Real Senator with us."  Sometimes it seems that the public believes that state senators and representatives are juniors having fun while the substantive work gets done in D.C.  Respect for state politicians, according to the media, keeps dropping. Everything bad, from the death of abused children to the red ink of the state budget to declining high school graduation rates, is blamed on the State Legislature.

The driving force can't be a taste for the power.  There is none. First-termers rarely become committee chairs or members of the leadership team. They have to prove that they can be loyal to their party's leaders first before securing choice assignments.

But being a state legislator does offer a chance to make a difference. This year, I have been impressed by the sincerity of every new candidate I have talked with. One wants to roll back eligibility for health insurance; a second wants to help struggling school districts get paid; and a third wants to expand human service programs for disabled young adults. Each one of them sincerely wants to be elected so he or she can help create smarter, better public policy.  

There may be other reasons. Perhaps the candidate wants a change in job scenery, or just a job, or perhaps business partners want an inside advantage in shaping regulations. Career-wise, the state legislature is a stepping stone to the more prestigious federal office. But, I don't think any of this new crop wants this because it looks like a cushy job. This was not true in the past. Years ago, a state legislator told me the best part of his job was that it gave him time to play golf. (This man went onto much higher office and then lost his job!)

I look forward to the energy and ideas coming to Springfield in 2013. The question is how the new legislators will change as they lose their innocence.  Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's democracy leader, was quoted by John McCain this month for her wisdom: "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."  My hope is that as these legislators learn how to operate, they will be inspired, not corrupted, by the power.