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Following a national census, which takes place every 10 years in America, your General Assembly must redraw the lines that define legislative, senatorial and U.S. Congressional districts. We are doing that now, during this session.
Lines are drawn based on revised population data, the goal being to end up with 100 state house districts, 38 state senate districts, and six U.S. congressional districts of roughly equivalent populations.
Naturally, those who redraw the lines (the majority in each chamber) want to retain the majority. So you redraw the lines to protect your own members and hurt members of the other party. (As Bo Bean would say, “it’s not right, but it’s so.”) The lines you draw are set out in a bill, and when that bill comes up for a vote the majority will rule; the minority truly has no input, except to vote no or yes.
And so, you will see lines drawn that put two (or more) minority members together in the same district, and if they want to run again they will have to take on the other in a primary election; one of them will be gone. Also, as a majority you have drawn district lines that use party registration to improve your chances of picking up even more seats with the goal of enhancing your majority.
A legislator develops relationships with many of those he/she serves, regardless of political party affiliation. When the geographic area you serve is changed due to redistricting, it can feel as if you’re losing friends in places that you have come to know and love, places that you might barely have known if you weren’t in office with a responsibility to them. That’s why redistricting can feel personal; we only have so much time, and dedicating that time to new areas means less time with our old friends.
Sometimes, a man or woman wants to run for office and so will place their name on the ballot. But more often, political parties recruit people to run against incumbents, and the reason is mostly about resources — money. The more people you run against incumbents, the less money the other guys have to spend on each of their races. In truth, the party doesn’t care so much that you might win, but rather that the other guy will have to raise money to defend his/her seat; and the more races you contest means there will be less money to spread around.
It’s kind of cynical, because these recruited candidates are mostly just fodder for the political battle. Nine times out of 10 they will lose to the incumbent.
Meantime, the campaign is probably ugly, and expensive. (Media love campaigns, because they make a ton of money selling exposure.) So you have two (usually) good people slugging it out, trying to damage the other’s reputation. The party will mail out half-truth postcards using voting records, personal history, etc. Prior to the election the two candidates were likely friends (or friendly acquaintances), but afterward the friendship suffers or is gone, and the campaign damages both of them in the public eye.
(I should say that, after my election in 2004 a friend approached me with advice from his father, who had served locally in political office. He said that I should never mention my opponent during a campaign; “just run on what you’ve done or will do.” I thought it was great advice, and abided by it since.)
Since our political system (which I prefer to any other in the world) heavily favors incumbents, how can we minimize the power of incumbency? Term limits is worth considering; there are people in your General Assembly who have served as a representative for over 30 years — they came in when Jimmy Carter was president. I think that this is unhealthy; one reason is that fresh faces are more humble, more likely to respect their oath of office.
For example, I debated a 16-year incumbent who said publicly that if the Kentucky Constitution conflicted with her passion, she’d go with her passion. I was flabbergasted. She’d forgotten that a legislator’s oath is not to a cause, but rather to the Constitution.
Some have said that we already have term limits by way of “the next election.” But I think the record shows that, since the power of incumbency is so strong, the next election doesn’t truly provide the opportunity for term limits. If you believe that long-term legislative service is a problem, then a possible solution is to set a constitutional limit on the number of years – say, eight, 10 or 12 years – one person may serve consecutively in the same office.
But for that to happen, incumbents will have to vote for term limits; and judging by the discussions I’ve had in Frankfort, that is not at all likely.
Hearing from you is the best part of my job. Call me at home, or leave a message at 1-800-372-7181. Our first “Coffee with Dave” is Saturday, 10 a.m., in Fairfield at Joy’s Grocery. There’s usually a good crowd there, so I hope you can join us. I’ll buy the coffee.