I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say that politicians are all alike, they all just want power and money, etc. etc. They say this about the ones at the local and state level as much as about those in Washington. When they go on with generalized, clearly uninformed rants, I ask them, “Have you ever actually met any of them?”
(Skip ahead if you already understand how the New Mexico Legislature is put together.)
In New Mexico, we have what I’m told is a rare degree of access to our state legislators. They are “citizen legislators,” meaning that they don’t get paid more than a minimal amount to cover the expenses of showing up for legislative sessions and interim committee meetings. They must either hold other jobs or be retired or otherwise financially cared for. OK, these offices can lead to lucrative business deals, future lobbying gigs, and higher political positions, and in addition a legislator who’s stuck it out for 10 years or more can later collect a very nice pension. But while at their labors for their constituents, our senators and representatives are working essentially for free.
This system tends to attract self-employed candidates and those who are older, often a great deal older. While it’s necessary to have other income, it’s impossible to be a legislator if you can’t leave your job for up to two months at a time. Younger and poorer people tend to be excluded, meaning that a large portion of the population is not being represented.
In order to keep up this concept of non-professional legislators, we must keep the length of legislative sessions short. A “long” session, held every other year, is 60 days, and a “short” session, in the alternate years, is 30 days. During the 30-day sessions, almost nothing except budgetary items can be considered. So we can only get substantial things done every two years. Except that we can’t, because everything that’s been saved up for the past two years is far too complex, and there’s far too much of it, to get anywhere near all of it done. Very little, in fact, does get done, compared to everything that’s needed.
This is NOT working, folks. Maybe a hundred years ago it was fine, when all we had to discuss was probably water use and a very few industries. Life is far, far more complicated now. We need more time to do the business of the state. The legislators, from what I’ve been hearing, realize this. But a professional legislature, meeting for much longer periods, would cost a great deal, and I don’t see how it could happen in the foreseeable future. In addition, if we did have a professional legislature, we’d have all the extremes of big money in politics that we see at the national level, much more than what we’ve already got, that is. (As soon as I figure out how to combine paying legislators, having longer sessions, and doing it all with public funding, I’ll let you know.) Nevertheless, I’d like to have a go at imagining this.
One of the things state legislators do on a regular basis is to attend events at which they can interface with the citizens. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet Senators Bill O’Neill and Jacob Candelaria and Representative Emily Kane at a town hall meeting at the Pueblo Cultural Center. Although none of them belong to my own district, I had a special interest in all of them because of helpful (and sadly unsuccessful) bills they’d sponsored in the last session, and because they had been very responsive. It seems that they’re all new or nearly-new in the job and so I suppose they haven’t had the idealism beaten out of them yet. The meeting was being held in order to get the perspective of some less-establishment, progressive Democrats about the fiasco with the budget bill that was passed in the last 20 minutes of the session– that is, to get an explanation of how that was allowed to get through. Which is a whole other story I won’t go into here.
Sen. Candelaria is of special interest because he is the youngest member of the Legislature, age 26, and the first openly gay man. (I was floored that it’s taken this long to get one of those.) He is also an immensely charismatic and compelling speaker, and although his colleagues are quite impressive themselves, he stands out as someone who is Going Places. He described how he’d become fast friends with Sen. Cliff Pirtle, who’s a Republican from a very different area of the state, because Pirtle is 27 and the rest of the legislators are literally decades older. This means that at least one “mixed-religion” pair are able to talk with each other and focus on what they have in common, and that’s got to be a good thing. As Swami Beyondananda puts it, “The red tribe and the blue tribe need to talk till they’re purple in the face.” This is another thing that seems a bit more doable at the state level than in Congress.
So there was a discussion of what has to happen to get younger people involved, including somehow making it more possible for the non-wealthy and working folk to serve as legislators. I pointed out that many young activists, like my daughter, see the Democratic Party as basically just one of the two corporate parties. Sen. Candelaria replied that as a gay Hispanic man who grew up poor, the difference between the two is quite clear to him. Yes, I said, but many of the younger folk are way to the left of even progressive Democrats. I was told that they might find quite a few who are officially Democrats but are pretty much where they’re at, and that there might still be some motivation for them to work within the party.
I hadn’t realized that this was an event sponsored by progressive Democrats, since I’d found out about it through the League of Women Voters and we’re not allowed to advertise for anything partisan. It was open to everyone, strictly speaking, not entirely partisan, but ultimately mostly attended by those of a particular political stripe. There were some Independents, though, and I had the opportunity to hear the point of view of one of them, an older man who has recently moved to New Mexico. His basic message was that he’s just tired of all the crap and doubletalk, and I doubt anyone can argue too much with that.
Near the end of the meeting a candidate for a local office showed up and spoke. I won’t name the man, since I’m about to criticize him harshly, but you may figure out who it was. At another event I’d had a nice, substantial personal conversation with this man, and I’d thought well of him and planned to vote for him. My estimation of him plummeted as he described how his parents, with their strong immigrant values, had instilled in him an appreciation of hard work, and how we needed Change at City Hall. Just the most warmed-over campaign boilerplate you could imagine– he said nothing of use whatsoever. It was very frustrating. Mr. Independent commented that this was exactly the sort of thing he was objecting to, politicians who seem to love to hear themselves talk but have nothing to say. I couldn’t disagree with him.
Meanwhile, Sen. Linda Lopez, who is running for governor, got up to say that in order to cut through all the noise, Democrats need to craft a focused, brief message that expresses what we’re all about. “Short and sweet!” she kept repeating. Yet it was clear that most of those in the room, and I think a great many elsewhere, were longing for something so much more than soundbites. Mr. Independent certainly was.
Despite my work with NMSAAM and other groups, I tend to prefer to be left alone, and I definitely prefer to have flexibility and to be dogma-free, so it’s been a little hard for me to understand why parties are needed at all. If I remember correctly, one of the Founding Fathers predicted that parties would destroy democracy. Yet, I am coming to realize how much structure and organization is needed to get even the smallest things done. How can we create more responsive, more flexible, nimbler organizations that can deal effectively with the massively complicated contemporary world? (Besides reforming campaign financing, I mean.) I have no idea. Comments are welcome.