A weird thing happens when voters are polled. People usually hold their legislature in low esteem, but somehow they still like their individual representative, even if they barely recognize their name. Perhaps our governmental dysfunction is not just corrupt politicians playing fast and loose with other people’s property.
Our problem is that we don’t really know our legislators very well, at all.
While the state’s first constitution didn’t control the numbers of senators and assemblymembers, the upper house was supposed to have at least a third of the membership of the lower house but no more than half.
For the last 150 years, each senator went from representing around 7,000 people to just under a million constituents. Such a ratio can hardly be called “representation.”
Rather than know the man or woman on the ballot, most people know their legislators only through stereotypes. After two decades working in and around the capitol and personally engaging with hundreds of legislators, I have identified five generic classifications to help the reader better understand the kinds of players making wholesale decisions about our lives, property, and liberties.
First, are the glad-handers. They like to be liked and are perennial candidates since their first introduction to student council in elementary school. They get a thrill out of running for office, and you can find them at every public event and in every picture, but don’t count on them reading many bills, including their own.
Second, are the bill passers. Every session, these representatives will carry the maximum number of bills they are allowed while becoming co-authors on others of every imaginable subject. You’ll hear them repeat the refrain, “I authored a bill on such-and-such.” They regale audiences with stories of their fierce committee hearing debates, jousts with lobbyists, and late nights finding the votes they need to get the bill to the governor’s desk. You’ll know this legislator instantly by the dozens of signed bills framed on their office walls.
Third, are the policy wonks. They are a small minority of lawmakers and would rather implement good public policy than simply pass legislation. They often come from a professional background and, while wise beyond their years, limit their commentary. You will not find them at the local watering holes and ribbon-cutting ceremonies as much as you’ll see them burning the midnight oil analyzing every proposal and budget item that comes across their desk. When they raise a series of thoughtful questions in committee or speak on the chamber floor, the room goes silent, because even the interns know that something profound is about to be shared.
Fourth, are the aspire-highers. These politicos don’t just run for office, they wake up every morning and see a future Governor or President in the mirror. They epitomize political correctness and seek to amass unmitigated power and control by any means necessary. These people work hard to master their sociopathic tendencies and will systematically ascend ranks fueled by their narcissism. They will get what they want regardless of who is in their path.
Fifth, are the doe-eyed, lucky ones. Most Assemblymembers fit in this box with cookie-cutter resumes. Being a legislator is the best job they’ve ever had (though they couldn’t really tell you how they got there). Their speeches are regurgitated, poll-tested talking points and platitudes furnished by well-placed, though relatively unknown, political consultants. Once they have served their purposes for the special interests who installed them, they are sent out to pasture and promptly forgotten.
Frankly, most (not all) of our legislators are opportunists who care more about themselves than their constituents. They have no problems retiring into a consultant and lobbying firm, using their connections and knowledge of the legislative and budgeting processes to advantage interest groups willing to pay them handsomely for leverage.
To diffuse self-serving political influence in Sacramento—before, during and after their tenure in office—I propose tripling the size of the Assembly to 240 and doubling the Senate to 80 members. We could do it without obligating the taxpayers to a single dollar more than we’re already spending on their bloated offices and staff by simply reapportioning the number of staffers commensurate with the new number of members.
And while the ratio of constituents to legislators wouldn’t be as low as existed in 1870, it would be much easier to communicate our wants and desires with them, keeping them from the fringes.