Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Legislative races should be crucible, not a cakewalk

I just read a column describing this long, sometimes brutal battle for the GOP presidential nomination, saying it’s good for the candidates and good for the electorate. It’s like a crucible that fires strong candidates, burns up weak ones and reveals all to the public.

And that’s what is sadly missing from too many legislative races in Wyoming. Each election, scores of races are decided in a primary or don’t need deciding at all, because only one person files for a seat. Each election, all 60 House seats and half the Senate seats, 15, are on the ballot. We electors are the losers in having such paltry choices.

No one is served by an uncontested or lop-sided election. Not the voters, obviously. But the candidates lose out, as well. The candidate who gets a free or near-free pass misses out on that crucible, untested by the fire and scrutiny of debate. The candidate doesn’t have to deal with an opponent’s challenges and hard questioning and may not even have to take a stand on tough issues. (Why alienate any voters if you don’t have to, you know what I mean?)

But the worst part comes when the unchallenged candidates take their seats in the Legislature, filled with a moral certitude and rectitude that makes for a stiff, uncompromising neck. In their eyes, they come with an unquestioned mandate, and they aren’t inclined to listen to and understand other viewpoints. Some come with a mission and a set of blinders, and they go home after 40 days just as clueless as when they arrived. Constituents rarely hear from them between elections, and the lawmakers would prefer not to be bothered by constituents, either.

Usually, legislators learn after a couple of terms that the unyielding, categorical style of representation doesn’t work. (Usually, but not always.)

Some legislators understand the importance of understanding right from the first day, including some who ran without a challenge. But, when you have a challenge, you have to listen.

Why do we have so many unchallenged races? One reason is the hard work of diligent legislative service. It’s a huge commitment of time away from work and family during the sessions and in the interim. Not many people can swing that. There’s also the cost of running – about $8,000 for a House race and $12,000 for a Senate race – and devoting a summer of knocking on doors. Another reason, I suspect, is the general lack of citizen awareness of what the Legislature is and the significance of service. That’s the fault of an uninformed electorate that substitutes yard signs for real information-gathering.

Some people are inclined to blame our single-member legislative districts, which encourage head-to-head competition and have residency requirements. Back before the 1992 redistricting, Laramie County was one at-large district. Imagine dozens of people running in a pack for the county’s  nine House and five Senate seats. It was hard to know much more than the names of candidates in that race. I don’t remember vigorous debates.

Single-member districts make for more accountable representation of a defined constituent area. But we need candidates who will oppose each other in primaries and general elections and challenge each other to be excellent candidates and then excellent legislators. We need a crucible, not a cakewalk. I’m not sure how we get that. It’s a shame that we don’t.