Who would want to run? Is elected office so onerous that it threatens quality of American governance

Nov 1, 2006

WANTED — Hard-working professional for job in public eye. Requirements: public relations skills, wide knowledge of public policy issues, thick skin. 

Work conditions: long hours, low pay, short-term contract, thousands of bosses, loss of privacy. 

Duties: make hundreds of public decisions involving millions of dollars with little information and intense public scrutiny. Good chance of career ending in public defeat or disgrace. 

Application process: takes 12 months. 

Does this sound like a job you'd want to apply for? Too bad, because it describes thousands of jobs in Illinois upon which we all depend — those of elected public officials. In fact, the employment conditions for people filling these jobs are so poor that it's surprising anyone "applies" at all. But there they are, every Election Day, people running for these offices who are willing, even eager, to take on the duties, challenges and discomforts of office. 

Why do they do it? And more important, has this job become so onerous that it threatens the quality of American governance by biasing the type of people willing to serve? While we can only answer the first question by probing the minds of candidates, we can say a thing or two about the second question. And the answers are not reassuring.

So, what's so bad about being an elected official? First off, a person considering running for office must understand that Americans hold politicians in low esteem. Along with used-car dealer, polls traditionally show politician ranks at the bottom in any measure of respect — such as jobs people want their children to hold. Americans just don't like politicians in general (although people tend to like a lot of individual politicians they know personally). It's the sort of job that gives fathers-in-law heartburn and makes mothers-in-law fidget when talk at the book club turns to extended families.

More practically, consider that basic motivator of many job-seekers: money. Elected officials' pay is relatively low. Sure, the governor of Illinois makes $150,691 per year and that isn't peanuts. But consider the duties and responsibilities of the position. A comparable job is something like that of the CEO of Target Stores, the 29th largest company in the country. The person in that position makes more than $8 million each year. Likewise, state legislators make about $58,000 per year in base pay these days. But for their peers — such senior-level professionals as accountants, lawyers, doctors, dentists and college professors — that's not a good income. Only those professionals working in the public sector would consider the compensation satisfactory. 

Like state legislators and governors, professionals in the public sector are willing to work for less money than their colleagues in the private sector. This is because, in addition to the pride and sense of accomplishment they receive from serving the public, these nonelected public sector professionals are willing to trade a large salary for job security. 

In a race in which there is any level of competition, one of the first things a campaign manager does is have an assistant dig up information about the opponent that can be used in negative press releases, ads and mailers, should they be deemed necessary

So an accountant working for the Department of Revenue may earn a lot less than her sister-in-law at that big-shot accounting firm, but she also is unlikely to be laid off at the age of 55 in a corporate shake-up.

This highlights another problem with work conditions for elected officials: job security. In short, they have none. Being an elected official means, generally, working under a two- or four-year contract, perhaps with the possibility of renewal. Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing for the citizens who employ these folks. A little job insecurity keeps employees busy and focused, and this is as true for elected officials as it is for teenagers at McDonald's. In fact, elected officials work every day in fear of displeasing their constituents by introducing the wrong bill, casting the wrong vote, making the wrong decision or even saying the wrong word. 

For example, as a state legislator, Gov. Rod Blagojevich introduced a bill that would raise the cost of a Firearm Owner's Identification card from $5 to $500. That bill never had a ghost of a chance of passage, but Blagojevich introduced it to show voters in his very liberal, very anti-gun, North Side of Chicago district that he held their values. Little more was thought of this minor piece of legislation until almost 10 years later when Blagojevich ran for governor and his opponents used that bill to prove to downstaters that he was a threat to their way of life. As an act of contrition, candidate Blagojevich was forced to don a plaid shirt and jeans and walk through a cornfield in a campaign commercial. 

Is that the sort of stuff you'd put up with to get a job?

This brings us to campaigning, that wonderfully American extended "job interview" for elected officials. Campaigns are grueling, time-consuming, expensive and just plain hard, trying the patience and budgets of even well-off, energetic, outgoing "people-people." There are endless doors to knock on in cold spring and fall weather, the indignity of asking friends and strangers for money, the parades in every little town and neighborhood, where the candidate is wedged between 6-year-old beauty queens and the high school band, both of which draw much more applause from the crowd. Candidates dip into their retirement funds and their kids' college funds. It is even not unheard of for candidates to take out second mortgages to buy TV ads or more posters. 

Campaigns also take an unlimited amount of time. A candidate could be out every evening talking to a group, having yet another "rubber-chicken dinner" — if he or she is lucky enough to get invitations to these. Candidates spend hours on end standing outside factory gates, going to restaurants and walking in shopping malls, introducing themselves to strangers and asking them for their votes. And this time is not free. Candidates may have to take vacation time (or unpaid leave) from work or simply cut down on their business activities if they are self-employed. All this means less money coming into the family budget, less time at home and more stress on the family. And what if the candidate loses the election? Then all that money and time has been completely wasted. Think of what the mother-in-law has to say at her book club then.

In addition to low pay, short-term contracts, campaigning and general humiliation, another obstacle keeping some people from a career in elected public service is the lack of privacy they have to endure, which is second only to the level to which we subject Paris Hilton and Tom Cruise. 

Certainly, the private life of every elected official is not spread completely bare, but as a person rises up the political food chain, these invasions become more frequent and intrusive. Even activities that are not illegal and wouldn't affect a person's job performance might affect a candidate's chances in an election. 

Plus, some things can be downright embarrassing if made public. 

For example, most people don't have to worry that the contents of their divorce records will be made public. 

But now, it seems, anyone contemplating a run for public office needs to consider whether he or she wants these quintessentially private documents published in the local newspaper. 

In a highly visible example in the 2004 Illinois U.S. Senate race (names withheld to protect the innocent but you know who they are), public disclosure of divorce records not only mortified two candidates and their families, they also played a pivotal role in the outcome of the race. 

One guy went from the front-runner in the Democratic primary to "who was that guy, again?" in just a few days when it was discovered that, in his divorce records, his wife claimed he once struck her on the ankle. (On the ankle? Are you kidding?) Later in the race for the same office, we found out from the Republican nominee's divorce records that he tried to take his wife on a little walk on the wild side. Icky, yes, but did it affect his ability to deliberate on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the Iraq War? And even though he tried to keep these records secret ("please, think of the children..."), the revelation forced him to quit the race. The Republican Party then punished Illinois voters by importing a candidate from Maryland to scold us for the next four months. 

Lesson learned.

More generally, two features of American public life today contribute systemically to the privacy problem for public officials. First, ever since Woodward and Bernstein brought down the Richard Nixon Administration, many in the American media have come to believe that any bad news about politicians is fair game. Of course, this varies among journalists and media outlets, and it depends (among ethical journalists) on the extent to which an indiscretion might be relevant to the performance of an official's job. But for the same reason that car chases drive out city council meetings on the local TV news, dirt on politicians attracts viewers and readers. 

The second systematic force exacerbating the privacy problem is the now-routine political strategy of opposition research. In a race in which there is any level of competition, one of the first things a campaign manager does is have an assistant dig up information about the opponent that can be used in negative press releases, ads and mailers, should they be deemed necessary. Sure, first they examine the political record: the opponent's voting record on the school board or in the state legislature and public statements he or she made on various issues and so forth.

That is certainly appropriate. These are things voters need to know because they are relevant to the decisions a candidate may make if he or she wins the election. But opposition researchers also will check out records at the county courthouse (oh, those divorce records), friends and acquaintances, and of course they will Google the opponent. Boy, does that Internet search engine make the work of political opponents easy these days. 

Thus, candidates can expect (although it may not happen) that both the media and their opposition will probe the darkest crevices of their lives and expose not only things that could reflect on their political beliefs or be predictive of their job effectiveness, but anything that might seem unsavory or could be cast in an unattractive light. And as a person moves up the political ladder, even the antics of his or her family may be made public. We've seen this at the presidential level for years — certainly Billy Carter's filling-station humor and tête-à-têtes with Muammar Gaddafi gave his brother Jimmy gas in the 1970s. But these days, candidates for governor, Congress and even lower-level offices have to consider whether they want to expose their family members to the sort of scrutiny a campaign can attract. Consider the brouhaha stirred up by that $1,500 birthday (or was it christening?) check to Amy (or was it Annie?) Blagojevich, or their father's feud with their granddad. Voters have a right to know for whom they are voting, but who among us does not have a youthful (or not-so-youthful) indiscretion, an idiot brother-in-law or behaviors that we would not like to have described in detail on the front page of the local newspaper? The prospect of such exposure likely keeps lots of good potential candidates from running for public office.

So what's the big deal, you say? Aren't there always plenty of candidates filling the ballot come Election Day? In fact, no, there aren't, at least not at lower levels of office. Seats on library boards, town commissions and other not-so-glamorous positions regularly have no candidates running for them, and so the spots are filled through appointment. But far more pervasive and insidious is the dearth of candidates for offices clear up the ballot to the state legislative and congressional levels, where political districts are drawn or circumstances are such that one candidate is almost certain to win. This lack of true choice in elections undermines democracy.

But there is another, less obvious, effect of these roadblocks to elective public service in the United States today: a bias in the kind of people who represent us. The costs and benefits of elective office sort out the people who find it worthwhile and satisfying to run from those who do not. Consider just a few characteristics that probably have such an impact. The time demands of candidacy probably deter those people who are especially busy — such as those in their 20s and 30s raising young children or those caring for aging parents or developmentally disabled children or those running small businesses — much more than those with a little more time on their hands, such as retired people, unmarried people and students. We probably get fewer candidates and officeholders who are somewhat outside the mainstream — gay people, the disabled, people of a minority religion or ethnicity, even those who are physically unattractive — and more types that are held in higher esteem: veterans, ministers and teachers. 

Candidates and elected officials might be those who are more likely than average to get a financial or psychological benefit out of self-promotion such as insurance and real estate salespeople, lawyers and risk-takers in general. 

Probably fewer run who are shy, careful people whose businesses or psyches are not rewarded by public attention. Certainly the time and financial costs of seeking political office deter poor people more than those who are well-off. And those with flexible working schedules — again, such as lawyers and insurance and real estate salespersons — would be less deterred than those running a small retail or manufacturing business or working for an hourly wage. Those with a short-term view of the world and a superficial understanding of a wide range of information would be more attracted to office than those who like to bore deeply into a single issue and think about problems with a long-range perspective. And, of course, anyone who has ever done anything they would be embarrassed to see on the front page of the morning newspaper would be far less inclined to run. 

Are there any intrinsic problems with these biases in the incentives and disincentives in running for office that have developed in recent years? Not necessarily. In fact, you might argue that some of those who are deterred from running would not be the sort we would want in office. But the fact that those running for and serving in office are not representative of our population at large suggests that their resulting public decisions also may be biased. For example, if officeholders are more likely to sell insurance or be lawyers than to sell shoes or be engineers, we might be less inclined to tax the businesses and activities of the former than those of the latter. This has implications for public policy and our representative democracy that are worth considering.

Sure, I've overemphasized the negatives and ignored many of the positives of public life, but the general point is valid. These are tough jobs, and we make them tougher all the time.

In the end, I can only congratulate and thank those who — despite all the obstacles that are placed in their way — do run for office and serve in the thousands of thankless, low-pay or no-pay state and local elective positions around the state. There is very little prestige in these but lots of work. We are all fortunate to get the quality of governance we do, given the roadblocks we put in the way of it. Perhaps if we were able to reduce some of these obstacles, we would increase our pool of "applicants." And as anyone who has ever had to hire employees knows, the larger your pool of applicants, the greater are the chances of hiring a quality employee. 

 

Christopher Z. Mooney is a professor of political studies with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues, November 2006