Last week, hundreds of Oklahomans filed for state and county office. Pending the resolution of a few questions of candidate eligibility, the field is set for this year's elections for U. S. Senate, Congress, the state legislature, county offices, and two seats on the Corporation Commission.
It's a smaller field than in years past.
An Associated Press story notes that the 296 filings received (268 of them for the state legislature) by the Oklahoma State Election Board is the smallest number in a presidential year in the last 20 years. Four years ago, the most recent comparable election, over 400 candidates filed.
Narrowing the scope a bit, 268 candidates filed for the 125 state legislative offices on the ballot -- all 101 State House seats and the 24 odd-numbered State Senate seats. That's barely two candidates per seat. 9 senators and 31 representatives were given a bye, re-elected without opposition.
Democratic and Republican party leadership scrambled to find candidates to challenge incumbents. In House District 77, I'm told that the Republican Party resorted to robo-calling GOP-registered voters to see if anyone would be willing to challenge freshman Democratic Rep. Eric Proctor. No one was.
In 2004, the last time the same seats were on the ballot, 386 candidates filed for Legislature, but that was in a year with a record number of open seats, with 28 representatives and 13 senators pushed out by term limits in the first year that the 12-year rule came into force.
In 2006, about half the 2004 number -- 7 senators and 15 representatives -- termed out, but the number of legislative candidates dwindled to 284.
Why would so few candidates file? A run for office is strenuous, but it's not a Herculean task. Running for the State House, you'd have to knock on about 60 doors a day over the five months of the campaign.
While some may be deterred by the prospect of campaigning, I suspect that even more are stopped short by the fear of winning. Oklahoma simply doesn't pay its legislators enough.
I realize that Oklahoma has some of the most highly-paid part-time lawmakers in the nation. Meeting four days a week over four months a year, our representatives and senators are paid $38,400, plus a per diem for room and board, plus a mileage allowance for one trip a week between home and the state Capitol.
Now imagine you're a college-educated professional, in your mid-30s to mid-40s, and considering a run for office. You still have a high level of energy, tempered by the wisdom and maturity that comes from a decade or two working in the real world. You have the capacity for managing complex details while keeping the big picture in mind. You've learned how to negotiate, how to collaborate, how to manage risk.
In short, you have just the sort of qualities Oklahoma needs in the men and women who make its laws and shape its future.
Near the peak of your career, you're making in the high five to low six figures annually. You might be a senior engineer, a middle manager, a junior executive, a physician or an attorney.
As your income has gone up, you've expanded your standard of living to match. You're comfortable, but you couldn't make the mortgage payment if your pay was half or a third of what you make.
You can think of a way to campaign and still keep up your responsibilities at work. (It'll mean shortchanging family time, however.)
But what if you win? Can your employer, your clients, your patients get by without you for four months out of the year? When you add in the pre-session caucus meetings and interim study committees, it's more like half a year.
The Legislature usually meets from Monday to Thursday; perhaps you could use your three days off to catch up on your day gig.
Except it isn't really three days off -- you have constituent phone calls to return, neighborhood meetings to attend, and the honor of your presence is requested at four or five civic events. Oh, and your spouse and children would like to get reacquainted with you.
If you have the opportunity to chair a committee or serve in leadership, you have even less time that you can call your own.
Since you can't keep up with your old job, you quit, put your career on hold for a few years, and try to find something you can do to make money when the Legislature's not in session.
Some of your colleagues sell real estate or insurance; one even works part-time as a cashier at Wal-Mart. (That's one way to keep in touch with the constituents.)
You might get lucky and find a business that would like to have a legislator on the payroll, even if it means no productivity for six months out of the year. But there's a fine line between a sinecure and a stealth campaign contribution intended to purchase your support when you're back in Oklahoma City.
Although your pay has plummeted, your cost of living has gone up. You have to hire people to take care of the chores you used to handle in the spare time you used to have. And more often than not, you're eating out, grabbing a quick meal between events.
The amazing and admirable thing is that many Oklahomans are willing to make those financial and family sacrifices, and they do so out of a genuine desire to serve the public interest and to make our state a better place to live.
Sure, some may be serving with the hope of climbing the political ladder. Some may hope to follow in the footsteps of former lawmakers who went on to far more lucrative careers as lobbyists. At least a few, as we're learning from the trial of State Auditor Jeff McMahan, are abusing the system for their own financial benefit.
In theory, a part-time Legislature is attractive. Our lawmakers have to live and work under the laws that they pass. They see in their own professions the unintended consequences of well-intended legislation.
In practice, the part-time salary -- it's less than Oklahoma's median family income was in 1994 -- and the career interruption serves as a deterrent to the kind of strategic thinkers we ought to have making our laws.
But raising the salary to something a senior manager might find acceptable may not be the answer either. There's the fear that a high salary might look like easy money to a candidate who doesn't have the skills to make that kind of money doing anything else.
Even if we don't raise their pay, we ought to pay our respects to those who are willing to serve us in the legislature. When a candidate comes knocking on your door this summer and fall, give him or her a few minutes of your time, listen, ask questions, and treat the candidate with kindness and respect. It's the least you can do for someone willing to make personal sacrifices for the sake of serving you at the state Capitol.
Share this article: