First Person Political: Legislative Life and the Meaning of Public Service

First Person Political: Legislative Life and the Meaning of Public Service

First Person Political: Legislative Life and the Meaning of Public Service

First Person Political: Legislative Life and the Meaning of Public Service


"First Person Politicalilluminates why people run for and serve in state legislatures from the standpoint of the legislators themselves and in a way that increases our appreciation of representative democracy. Part of the charm of this book is that it is intensely personal and, therefore, compelling." - Karl Kurtz, co-author ofRepublic on Trial: The Case for Representative Democracy

"First Person Politicalfills an important void in our understanding of politicians and politics. Through a combination of surveys and the tools of the political scientist, Reeher provides for the reader both empathy and insight into what makes politicians tick at the state legislative level. We may not like what our state legislators do, but reading this work will help us understand much better who we elect and the constraints that operate on them." - Thomas J. Volgy, author of Politics in the Trenches: Citizens, Politicians, and the Fate of Democracy

"An informative, sophisticated, and entertaining book. Reeher's interviews with three sets of state lawmakers in three distinct legislatures provide candor, real food for thought, and wonderful insights. First Person Politicalstands as a real contribution to understanding legislative politics, the people who practice these politics, and how to gently nudge politicians to provide candid glimpses of their world. - Burdett Loomis, co-author ofThe Sound of Money: How Political Interest Groups Get What They Want InFirst Person Political, Grant Reeher combats the public's alienation from and distrust of politicians by putting a personal face on everyday political life. Through moving personal interviews, Reeher allows legislators to tell their own stories about how and why they came to politics, the experience of serving in their state legislature, their decisions to stay or leave, and the many trials they face in the name of public service. Reeher contends that these politicians do have the public good in mind and often suffer great personal losses for their chance to represent the people and fight for what they think is right. His research also shows that those who choose to run for office often come from a background of deep community involvement. Reeher argues against public cynicism about our elected officials, and his profiles stir not only our praise and respect for these legislators, but also a greater belief in the democratic process itself. The excerpts from his interviews provide a rarely afforded intimate look at these politicians. What emerges from these stories is a humane and believable portrait of public servants acting on behalf of the public good, a portrait that should provide some comfort, perhaps even inspiration, for citizens concerned about the state of American democracy.


The word candidate is very old. Ancient Romans seeking high public office customarily dressed in white togas—hence the Latin candidatus, or clothed in white. The candidates' loosely fitted robes made it easy for them to reveal the scars they had earned in battle, while their robes' pure white color, made more intense by rubbing in chalk, demonstrated the purity of their civic purpose in the pursuit of public office.

What today's candidates might reveal about themselves is not hidden by togas; their shrouds are instead woven from the many layers of distance separating most citizens from their political representatives—layers of mediated political information, the absence of politically safe spaces in which to communicate as well as publicly reflect and ruminate, political alienation, and mutual distrust. It is these virtual robes that I attempt to pull back in this book by supplying an insider's view of the political and personal lives of legislators based on their experiences in running for, serving in, and deciding whether to exit from the legislature.

Ultimately, what is revealed in this process is an impression running counter to commonly held ideas about politicians' motivations and the nature of legislative life: that candidates for public office in the United States today actually look a lot like the ancient Roman idealized version. Contrary to what most people think, most candidates pursue office, and once elected serve in office, primarily out of a motivation to advance the public good—and many pay dearly for their efforts.

To uncover these aspects of legislative life, I rely primarily on the extended in-depth interviews that I conducted with 77 legislators serving in the lower houses of Connecticut, New York, and Vermont during the mid-1990s, a time when public respect for and trust in politicians and the political institutions they inhabit reached all-time lows. I also draw on survey responses collected from 233 legislators in the same three states . . .

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