State Watch

Mass leadership exit hits nation’s state legislatures

Nearly a third of the top leaders in the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers will quit their posts this year, signaling a wave of turnover that will hand power to a new generation.

At least 30 state House Speakers, Senate presidents and majority leaders have either resigned or said they will retire at the end of their current terms, according to a tracker maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas (R) became the latest to announce his exit. After a quarter century in the legislature and eight years as one of the state’s most powerful politicians, a tearful Lucas told colleagues Tuesday the current session would be his last.

“I can only hope that each of you believes that I’ve been a worthy servant of this chamber and worthy of the job you have so graciously bestowed upon me,” he said.

Substantial turnover in an election year is not entirely unusual in state legislatures, especially among leaders who have spent years in office ascending to their posts. In 2020, 20 Speakers and presidents quit, and another four lost primary elections; in 2018, 35 left office, according to NCSL data.

And now, when most legislatures are concluding their work in what are usually short election year sessions, is when most retirement announcements come.

“As sessions start to wrap up, that is when we start to see leaders make announcements one way or the other,” said Stacy Householder, director of the NCSL’s leadership, training and international programs. “We’re actually right on par with past election years.”

Those who are leaving this year include Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney (D), who at 19 years atop the Senate is the longest currently serving legislative leader in the nation.

Courtney’s home state is one of seven this year to lose both of its legislative leaders. House Speaker Tina Kotek (D), Courtney’s counterpart in Salem, resigned to focus on her campaign for governor.

Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Montana will have entirely new leadership teams next year, after the exits of their Speakers and top senators.

Several leaders, like Kotek, are giving up their posts to seek higher office. Pennsylvania Senate President Jake Corman (R) is running for governor in his state.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson (R) is running for agriculture commissioner. New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse (R) is challenging Sen. Maggie Hassan (D). In Georgia, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (R), whose job includes presiding over the state Senate, is retiring; state Senate President pro tempore Butch Miller (R) is among those seeking to replace him.

Nevada Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D) will quit his post after President Biden nominated him to serve as the state’s U.S. attorney.

Legislative leaders always hold considerable authority to set agendas, call up legislation or otherwise put their stamps on a state’s political culture. But some use those powers to greater effect, and some of those leaders are quitting or face term limits this year.

Among them are South Carolina’s Lucas, Pennsylvania’s Corman, New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf (D), Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) and Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon.

Their exits leave open the chance for their successors to put new stamps on a state’s political culture and agenda.

“Legislatures are constantly changing. There are constantly opportunities for people to step up into leadership positions,” Householder said.

Tags Arizona Florida Georgia Joe Biden Maggie Hassan Michigan Nevada Oregon retirements South Carolina State legislatures

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