The Great Resignation hits state legislative chambers
Across the nation, employees have had enough. Scores are telling their bosses they will quit at the end of this year, fed up with working conditions, low pay and fraying relationships.
Only in this case, those employees are state legislators, and the bosses they are leaving are the constituents who sent them to make law in state capitals.
Dozens of legislators in states big and small are heading for the exits this year, declining to seek new terms and collectively leaving behind centuries of legislative experience. Their departures will vastly reshape the political climates at a time when American politics is already in upheaval.
At least 59 members of the Minnesota House and Senate will not run for reelection this year, more than a quarter of the 201 representatives and senators who serve in St. Paul. Several are running for other offices, but at least 38 are simply leaving politics.
In Connecticut, more than 1 in 5 legislators will not seek reelection. About 1 in 6 lawmakers in Washington state will not run for their current jobs. In Pennsylvania, 32 members of the House and five senators will retire or run for other office. Kentucky will lose 20 incumbents out of the 138 members.
Their reasons for leaving are as varied as the states and districts they represent — some are simply retiring at the end of long careers, others have been forced out by the decennial redistricting process and some say they have accomplished what they got elected to do.
But a growing number of legislators say the jobs they sought and won have changed substantially, in an age of hyper-partisanship and the crusading denizens of social media.
“The tone has changed quite a bit, and it’s not just from the other side. In a city like Seattle, you get beat up a little bit on your own side sometimes, even if you’re a progressive politician,” said Washington state Sen. David Frockt (D), who will retire at the end of his third term. “I don’t think we’re immune to the anger that’s out there in the electorate.”
“It’s about the politics of personal destruction. That’s pretty prevalent on social media when you have keyboard warriors. That truly gets old when you’re trying to do the right thing,” said Kentucky state Rep. Jim DuPlessis (R), who will retire after his fourth term to focus on his day job. “I’m not going to miss that.”
Others expressed frustration with a changing landscape in legislatures that were once quiet bastions of bipartisanship, where cross-aisle deals and negotiations yielded results. Today, the partisan cancer that has poisoned Washington, D.C., is metastasizing to the states.
“The states just become the extension of the federal government. So ideas aren’t considered that are brought up by members anymore. It’s ideas from lobbyists and it’s policy brought by lobbyists and corporations,” said Tennessee state Rep. Jason Hodges (D), who will be just 41 years old when he leaves the Capitol in Nashville after only two terms. “I’m a guy that really truly believes in government and believes that government can have a positive effect on people’s lives. To be honest with you, I don’t know that I would say that’s the case anymore. It’s probably not.”
Another Tennessee state representative, David Byrd (R), said he had grown frustrated by the power of leadership to set the agenda — a trend that mirrors the consolidation of power in the hands of just a few top leaders in Congress.
“Unless you’re in leadership, you really don’t make that big of a difference, it seems like. We’ve got a great leadership bunch, but it seems like they’re the ones that make the decisions,” Byrd said in an interview. “And everybody else kind of follows suit. And I’ve never been one to follow suit.”
The turnover is not limited to rank-and-file members, either. At least 33 House speakers, majority or minority leaders or Senate presidents have or will depart this year, throwing open their powerful posts to insider jockeying that will determine the future directions of their respective states.
Some, like Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) and Pennsylvania Senate President Jake Corman (R), are leaving to run for governor; Kotek won her party’s primary last month, while Corman fell short in his. Former Nevada Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D) left his job to accept President Biden’s nomination to be his state’s U.S. attorney. Ten will retire in the face of term limits.
Turnover among state legislators — the vast majority of whom serve in roles that pay part-time wages for full-time work — is common. In the last decade, an average of about 1,000 legislators have retired in each two-year cycle, according to data maintained by Ballotpedia, the nonpartisan elections analysis website. And in years in which political lines are redrawn, that number can spike: More than 1,100 legislators quit in 2012, the last time lines were redrawn.
Legislators are also more likely to retire when they anticipate a bad political year ahead for their parties. In 2010, 579 Democrats retired ahead of a midterm wave that eviscerated their party, the highest figure of the entire decade. In 2018, 723 Republicans retired ahead of the thumping they suffered under then-President Trump.
The legislators interviewed for this story overwhelmingly said they would look back on their experiences fondly.
“I enjoy the job, I enjoy shaping policy. I think that I’m going to truly miss the ability to help shape policy,” DuPlessis said. “I’m not being run off because I hate it.”
But, they said, all good things come to an end, and most would prefer to go out on their own terms.
“I’ve seen people stick around too long,” Frockt said. “And I didn’t want to be that guy.”