The "Wizard" of Democracy: Intellect, Insight and Inspiration Distinguish Alan Rosenthal's Influence on State Legislatures

By Kurtz, Karl | State Legislatures, July-August 2013 | Go to article overview
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The "Wizard" of Democracy: Intellect, Insight and Inspiration Distinguish Alan Rosenthal's Influence on State Legislatures


Kurtz, Karl, State Legislatures


It happened like this: When Rutgers University Professor Alan Rosenthal went to Columbus, Ohio, to observe the General Assembly, he decided to test the old saw, "Two things you should never watch being made are sausages and laws."

"After watching our legislature, he wanted to observe sausage being made," says Richard Finan, former president of the Ohio Senate. "So I made several phone calls and got him an appointment to visit a sausage factory. When he returned from touring it, he concluded that the saying was a total myth. Sausage-making is nothing at all like lawmaking."

Rosenthal turned this experience into a memorable article for State Legislatures magazine in September 2001. In "The Legislature as Sausage Factory: It's About Time We Examine This Metaphor," he contrasted the highly private, regulated, inspected and routine process of making sausages with the highly public, ever-shifting, on-the-fly, never-the-same process of making laws.

A Rare Combination

This story illustrates both the humor and acuity Rosenthal brought to his study of state government and politics. His rare ability to bridge the gap between academics and politics served him well.

He has written or edited numerous books, reports, articles and monographs. He's influenced the lives of thousands of students and two generations of political scientists. He's been honored with many awards.

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But perhaps the greatest influence this skilled observer of representative democracy has had is this: He has helped to modernize and strengthen state legislatures, encouraging them to become equal partners in our three-part government.

"Alan's good humor, keen intellect and incessant curiosity have enabled him to make lasting contributions to our understanding of representative government," says David Frohnmayer, a former state legislator and University of Oregon president-emeritus. "In very few fields of political science scholarship is so much owed to the efforts of a single pioneering investigator. Alan Rosenthal is owed a debt of gratitude by all who study or serve in state governments."

The Art of Scholarship

Rosenthal had been practicing the art of scholarship and practical politics since the late 1960s and early 1970s when he and the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University conducted studies of the Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Mississippi, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin legislatures, to strengthen them and make them more effective.

Rosenthal directed and wrote or edited all the reports and recommendations on the eight states. Connecticut's report, written by David Ogle, a former student of Rosenthal's, is credited with persuading members of the Connecticut General Assembly to adopt sweeping changes.

The transformation in Hartford reflected the institutional challenges of the times: switching from biennial to annual sessions, creating nonpartisan offices for research and fiscal analysis, establishing a joint legislative management committee, converting bill drafting and more to the computer age, and raising legislators' salaries.

About the same time, Rosenthal and Donald Herzberg, the director of the Eagleton Institute, were conducting seminars for emerging legislative leaders. For 10 years, these workshops on the institution of the legislature made a profound impression on participants, many of whom later became legislative leaders, governors and members of Congress.

Like many others who participated in one of these conferences, Martin Sabo, former Minnesota House speaker, NCSL president and congressman, says Rosenthal "taught me and other legislators the importance of the legislative institution and the responsibility to nurture it."

Throughout his career, Rosenthal paid particular attention to his home state of New Jersey. In 1992 and again in 2001, he served as the independent, nonpartisan tie-breaker on the state's congressional redistricting commission.

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