Anti-Incumbent Fervor Takes Toll At State-Legislature Level Too
AMERICA'S state legislatures are in for the greatest turnover in a decade this fall. Look for over a third new faces, including many more women, blacks, Latinos, Asians. More unknown and fringe candidates will succeed, rushing in where incumbents can no longer tread.
But don't expect any major swings toward the Republican or Democratic side. Anti-incumbency fervor will "throw the bums out" in roughly proportionate numbers, keeping the Democratic edge of about 59 percent of state legislature seats nationwide.
"The partisan balance will change little if at all," says Bill Kurtz, program director for the National Association of State Legislatures. If Bill Clinton continues his gain in the polls, Mr. Kurtz says, the Democrats will get a slight edge. But state legislative races have become so decoupled from national races that "the presidential race won't have all that much effect."
As in national races, the No. 1 issue is the economy. Already soured by years of successive budget cuts, state legislatures are now facing federal mandates to expand Medicaid and other welfare programs and to reduce prison overcrowding. This means suspending other pressing concerns - from expanding education to economic development and workers' compensation reforms - all of which translate into local voter frustration.
Statehouse shenanigans from partisan bickering over budgets to sheer ineptness have brought term-limit initiatives in 15 states, along with recently passed measures in California, Colorado, and Oklahoma.
Another measure of voter distrust is the growth in divided governments - when executive and legislative branches are dominated by different parties. It has hit 31 states and is expected to grow further this fall.
Federal-ordered redistricting will add a predicted 10 percent to the usual 25 percent turnover because of incumbents who either lost seats altogether or who are being forced to run in redrawn districts.
"It takes a lot more effort to get elected in a changed district," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "An incumbent might find himself forced to take on another incumbent from what was once an adjacent district, or just realize his constituency has changed too much." One notable example is California, where in 1991 a court-ordered master plan eliminated the bizarre gerrymandering that gave Democrats an edge for over a decade. Such longtime political fixture s as State Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti (D) of Los Angeles face expensive, hard-fought races.
The California Republican Party once estimated a possible net gain of about 38 Assembly seats, though most feel that edge has since dwindled.
Fallout from the lowest ratings ever for current Republican Gov. Pete Wilson maysubstantially eat into that margin.
Nationally, the number of women in state legislatures is expected to increase well beyond its current 18 percent, led by such states as California, where 81 women are running for State Assembly, up from 46 just two years ago. The major catalyst, according to Tammy Bruce, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, was testimony by Anita Hill before an all-male committee at the confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court.
"Women realized it wasn't enough to have sympathetic men in office," says Ms. Bruce.
"One thing I have noticed for the first time in 10 years," adds Donna Bojarski, co-chair of the L.A. Women's Campaign Fund, "is that everyone from operator to receptionist to lawyer is saying, `I am voting for any woman's name I see on the ballot.' "
Nationally, the 6 percent of legislators who are black and the 2 percent who are Hispanic will increase because of 1982 amendments to the Federal Voting Rights Act. The amendments require every effort be made to create districts that would likely elect minorities. This is expected to bring more Hispanics in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and California and more blacks in Southern states.
Ironically, such gains for blacks benefit Republicans.
"When you pack blacks into districts [by redrawing them], the surrounding suburbs become less Democratic, assuming most blacks are Democrats," says Doug Sacarto, spokesman for the National Association of State Legislatures. The South, at a current all-time high for Republicans at 26 percentof legislative seats, is expected to produce more Republican lawmakers.
Another change: "National and state conditions simply affect the system's ability to attract good candidates - the talent pool has shrunk," Mr. Schier says.