Today's Legislators: Who They Are and Why They Run?

By Woo, Lillian C. | State Legislatures, April 1994 | Go to article overview
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Today's Legislators: Who They Are and Why They Run?


Woo, Lillian C., State Legislatures


A survey of 900 state lawmakers uncovers a new breed of legislator in the Capitols of 16 states.

The average state legislator is 49.44 years old, married, has 2.4 children, is well educated, and, judging from the high average income level, is successful professionally.

So say 900 state legislators in 16 states who responded to a two-year study. Here's what they say about themselves.

Reared in mainstream America, today's average legislator grew up in a comfortable, stable family in a traditional community. Most continue to live in the state where they were born, and many still live in the towns and cities where they grew up.

Legislators say their parents provided by example a strong work ethic and a set of values that shaped their lives. These early parental influences produced achievers. Although few parents of the legislators interviewed went to college and more than half of the mothers worked outside the home, more than 80 percent of state legislators are college graduates with 34 percent holding a bachelor's degree only and an additional 46.9 percent having advanced degrees.

Compared with average citizens, legislators have very high incomes. Although 27 percent have annual family incomes of $15,000 to $60,000, 32 percent fall into the $60,000 to $85,000 category, 19 percent earn between $85,000 and $125,000, and 12 percent more than $125,000. (Census Bureau figures for 1989 put the average household income at $28,906, with white families averaging $30,406 and college graduates, $49,180.)

Making A Difference

Legislators today face the double-barreled challenge of responding to emergencies as well as planning for the future. The program and policy choices are tough; the pressure from interest groups is constantly growing. No matter what decision is made, somebody will be upset; the press is ever critical; and the controversies fuel voter distrust of politicians and strengthen their belief that elected officials hold office primarily to feather their own nests.

Given the hard work, pressures and criticisms that state legislatures endure--who would want to serve?

Legislators say they serve because they believe they can make a difference. For example, Representative Jackie Young, vice speaker of the Hawaii House, got into elected politics because "I care about the community and want to make a difference, especially in the area of water and land use. I do my homework on issues and get a broad picture of where we need to be heading; I am creative in finding alternative solutions; and I believe in public accountability."

Colorado Representative Jeanne Faatz says her commitment comes from a partisan view. "Many Republicans were disillusioned by Watergate and distanced themselves from politics. I felt that perhaps one person could make a difference in changing the public's cynicism about people in public office. Working hard to keep in touch with my constituents, I hope that I am helping to restore the public's faith in the system."

Pennsylvania Representative Ken Lee's father had been speaker of the House and had run for lieutenant governor, so he became familiar with public service early. After a stint as a legislative staff researcher and attorney, Lee decided to run for a seat. "I know that, as a Republican, I have very little potential to make major changes in a Democratic-dominated legislature. But I ran because I feel I understand the workings of the legislature and have something to contribute. I want to make sure that the legislative process is not abused by the existing powers and influences."

Why Do They Run?

Armed with supreme confidence about their political, professional and leadership skills, legislators say they chose to run for public office because of a fundamental belief in the value of our political system and its constituent institution. They feel that they have something to offer; they care about the future of their states; and they believe that through the legislative process they can make a difference.

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