At some level, the departure of so many state Senators this year probably will satisfy those who believe that too many politicians stay on for too long, thanks, of course, to the miracle of gerrymandering.
While there’s something to that argument, there’s also something to be said about experience and institutional memory. When veteran legislators like Joe Doria, Bill Gormley and Robert Littell pack it in, they take with them knowledge and savvy that often take years to develop.
Consider what happened across the Hudson River when voters imposed a two-term limit on members of the New York City Council. Dozens of legislators were turned out of office, and dozens of newcomers €” some with no legislative experience €” were brought in. The main beneficiaries were the Mayor, who, although also subject to term limits, had the power to steamroll the neophytes, and the Council’s staff members, who had to draw maps to the toilets for the new members.
Term limits helped sweep away some Councilmembers who hadn’t had an idea, good or bad, since the days of Abe Beame. But they also sent some pretty smart people, like Peter Vallone, into premature retirement. Term limits also have transformed the dynamics in New York’s City Council. As soon as a Councilmember wins a second term, he or she begins looking for a new job in government or in the private sector.
So much of real-life legislating involves knowing the players, knowing the process, and knowing the historic precedents for a particular bill or an issue. Sure, newcomers can learn, but there’s something to be said for the old political warhorses for whom the process is second nature.
Retirements are inevitable, and sometimes even welcome. But a wave of retirements can be unsettling, too.