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Low salaries and long hours are among the reasons elected officials under age 40 say they are exiting midterm or not running for reelection.
Scores of state legislators are not running for reelection while others have quit before their term ends. Many of these lawmakers are under age 40, and they say they are leaving because of low pay, exhaustion and a pandemic-prompted reassessment of life's priorities.
The trend is hard to quantify: There is no national database tracking legislators' political plans and, in some states, lawmakers still have time to decide whether to seek another term. But several state capitols are bracing for a significant exodus.
In California, at least 26 members of the Assembly and Senate are forgoing another term or quit mid term. In Minnesota, at least 29 state lawmakers are retiring. And in Texas, a large list of lawmakers are stepping away from the legislature.
The looming departures have the potential to shake up power dynamics in many of the 46 states holding legislative elections this year. They also have raised concerns that statehouses may become less diverse, as women, people of color, younger people and LGBTQ lawmakers leave public service out of economic necessity.
"The pandemic has made us all focus on what's important,'' said Rep. Karin Power, an Oregon Democrat and a 38-year-old mother of two small children.
Earlier this year, Power and two Democratic colleagues in the Oregon House—Rachel Prusak and Anna Williams—announced they would not seek reelection, citing low pay and a rising workload as the primary reasons. The base salary for Oregon's part-time legislature is about $33,000 a year.
"The three of us simply can't make it work financially anymore,'' said Power, an environmental lawyer. "Technically, this is a part-time legislature but we have had five special sessions since the start of the pandemic and a lot of extra work on top of that."
The stresses brought on by the Covid-19 crisis have taken an enormous toll, Power said. “We’ve been operating at surge capacity for more than two years,’’ she said. “We can’t sustain ourselves, our professions and our families while doing this work.”
Power and many of her fellow lawmakers have struggled during the pandemic. “I joked with my colleagues that you’ll see these years in our bodies like you see tree rings,’’ she said.
Seeking Better Pay
Concerns about low pay loom largest for lawmakers in their 20s, 30s and early 40s, said Layla Zaidane, president and CEO of the Millennial Action Project, a bipartisan association for legislators born after 1980.
“The No. 1 thing that we’re hearing is that it is financially unfeasible for so many of them to have these jobs and pursue a lot of the milestones that young people want to pursue at this stage in their lives, to start a family, to buy a house …,’’ Zaidane said. “It’s really hard to do that on some of these state legislators’ salaries and unless they’re independently wealthy, or they have a spouse or a partner that can support them, it’s just not realistic.’’
The trend, she said, “was happening even before the Great Resignation but it’s certainly been exacerbated in the last couple of years.’’
Steven Rogers, an associate professor of political science at Saint Louis University, has studied legislative salaries. He says lawmakers who have the option of going back to a well-paying profession, such as medicine or law, are more likely to leave the statehouse.
To some degree, legislative churn is a factor every decade, fallout from the redistricting process. Some incumbents opt not to run after the redrawn lines leave them with a district that’s less politically safe–or outside the boundaries altogether. In other cases, the redistricting process opens up political opportunities, such as running for Congress.
Midterm elections can be notoriously tough for down-ballot candidates whose party holds the White House and that’s true this cycle, Rogers said.
“Democrats may be saying, ‘I don’t really want to lose so I’m going to quit now,’’’ he said.
But the pandemic has also reshaped the priorities of public officials, just as it has prompted career reassessments for an estimated 33 million U.S. workers Americans working across industries who have quit their jobs over the past year.
“It's exhausting and we’re all exhausted,’’ said Zaidane. “People feel over it, whatever it is.”
Reassessing Life Priorities
Lawmakers with young children, some of whom juggled child care and Zoom lessons with legislative business, are more likely to step away, Rogers said. “They may be reassessing their priorities,” he said.
Politicians who choose not to run sometimes say they want to spend more time with their families. “Even though it’s a cliche, there is some truth to it,’’ Rogers said.
Rep. Michael Curcio, a Republican from Tennessee, said his decision to leave the state House of Representatives was driven partly by a desire to avoid burnout.
“Serving in this capacity was a heck of a mountain to climb, and I now look forward to the next mountain,’’ Curcio, the father of three, said in a message posted on Facebook last month.
In Oregon, where one-third of the House of Representatives is not returning next year, the departures will leave a major void, Power said. “The low pay has been a systemic barrier for women, people of color and young people,’’ she said. “We’re losing a lot of excellent folks.”
Will Haskell, a 26-year-old state senator from Connecticut, said it was never his plan to stay in office for decades. A two-term Democrat, he plans to attend law school in the fall.
“The reaction I get from older constituents has been total surprise that I’m leaving the legislature,’’ he said. “But I first ran because I thought change is good and it is healthy for democracy to have new voices and ideas. Whoever comes after me is sure to bring new ideas.”
Daniela Altimari is a reporter for Route Fifty based in West Hartford, Connecticut.