By Senator Lena C. Taylor
Nationally and locally, the slate of elected officials announcing that they are not planning to seek re-election is setting off alarms. According to Ballotpedia, “As of December 2021, 37 members of Congress—six members of the U.S. Senate and 31 members of the U.S. House—have announced they will not seek re-election. Twenty-two members—six senators and 16 representatives—have announced their retirement. Five retiring Senate members are Republicans and one is a Democrat, and of the retiring House members, 11 are Democrats and five are Republicans”.
While it is encouraging that half of those officials are planning to run for other elected offices, it remains a stunning exodus from public/government service. From Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin, to other states around the country, more legislators are making the choice to walk away from elected office. Sadly, very few would blame them or besmirch their decision. Admittedly, a lot has changed and the political road ahead is paved with potholes, failing bridges and pedestrian fights.
Let’s be honest, most of us know the feeling of hitting a pothole. The initial response is alarm, then concern and finally frustration at failed systems. If we can’t stay on top of potholes, how do we address the big picture policy issues? Just the cost of running for public office is daunting. Estimates put a U.S. Senate campaign financing at roughly $15 million and a U.S. House of Representatives campaign averages $2 million. This type of spending certainly represents a pothole for the average candidate, frequently stopping interested candidates from moving forward. Money is just one factor. Other considerations include incumbency, gerrymandered districts, party affiliation, and more.
To keep the metaphor rolling, I’ve often said I ran for office to be a part of big policy debates and legislation that would directly help the people of my district. I have been privileged to work across the aisle to get bills passed. I visited the districts of my Republican colleagues to break down barriers and I’ve broke bread with them to hash out our differences. But, the landscape of bipartisan cooperation is shifting. Bridges, once put in place to keep the lines of communication open, are now being torn down. It is getting more difficult to get to the middle of the road. It is with that understanding, that no one is surprised that voting rights bills are languishing in the U.S. Senate.
When we come to these elected roles, we expect disputes and tough negotiations. Today, there are far too many fights. The Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol was literally a fight to illegally stop our presidential election certification. Federal legislators have used the threat of firearms to intimidate colleagues. Family members of elected officials are targeted for protests by unhappy voters. Many aspects of these jobs have been turned into circus side shows and used for political gamesmanship. Far too often, parties are placed above people and individuals have become so powerful it’s getting harder to see our democracy.
As legislators tap out and say enough is enough, I thought about the famous soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” In the play, Hamlet is discussing the value of life vs. death. He is considering the human existence vs. his own existence. Elected officials at every level of government appear to be doing the same thing. Although we will never know everyone’s personal reasons for leaving public office, more a clearly making the decision “not to be.”