Rural lawmakers hold tight to power as states change
In state Capitols scattered across the country, even as legislative redistricting under way inevitably will eliminate or drastically alter some rural districts, there are also plenty of powerful rural lawmakers who have shown the ability to defy geographic shifts, or shift with them, and many intend to keep doing so.
The New York Times
RITZVILLE, Adams County — State Sen. Mark Schoesler might seem a marginalized man at first glance. In this blue state, he is deep-red Republican. In his hometown here in rural Eastern Washington, the population is in perpetual decline and Main Street resists revival.
Although it has been nearly 20 years since Schoesler became a state lawmaker, fewer and fewer of his colleagues in Olympia, the capital, have a clue about what he does for a living.
"There were people who had tree fruits, blueberry farms, hops, grapes," Schoesler recalled of his fellow lawmakers in 1992 when he was first elected to the state House. "Now, I think that I can say that I'm the only one in the Senate whose primary living is farming."
But please pause the eulogy right there, because while Schoesler is a dryland wheat farmer, he also happens to be the Senate Republican floor leader.
And this spring, when push came to shove in the final days of the state's painful budget negotiations, with a gaping $5 billion deficit to close, Schoesler was among those carving out common ground with the majority Democrats from Seattle and other cities. For Schoesler, it was a peak.
"I'd never negotiated anything real significant in the budget before," he said. "There's things in it I can be proud of, having a role in it."
The 2010 census confirmed the same sad trend confirmed by many censuses before it: As Americans continue to migrate to cities and suburbs, rural places are steadily losing people and political power.
Yet in state Capitols scattered across the country, even as legislative redistricting under way inevitably will eliminate or drastically alter some rural districts, there are also plenty of powerful rural lawmakers who have shown the ability to defy geographic shifts, or shift with them, and many intend to keep doing so.
Like other longtime lawmakers, representatives of rural areas in states without term limits tend to hold on longer. Those with the most longevity, and power, are mostly white men and often from states in the South, Midwest and West that have strong rural traditions, even if their populations are more urban.
They succeed in part because experienced hands are still in demand, even amid calls for change in state Capitols. There can be a paradox in their power: The regions they come from are often in decline, so their seats may not be hotly contested.
"Generally, as a rule of thumb, you don't see senior leadership coming from embattled districts," Schoesler said. "Leaders have to do unpopular things, so you tend to see both parties look for safe seats to groom leadership in."
In Oregon, the co-speakers of the evenly-divided state House, Bruce Hanna, a Republican, and Arnie Roblan, a Democrat, come from neighboring rural districts in the heavily forested areas in the southwestern part of the state.
Both expect to hang onto their districts after they are redrawn — and each man wants to win outright control of the House. But they credit their shared small-town roots for their ability to work together and, to some degree, for their selection by other lawmakers as co-speakers.
"It's our basic beliefs about how people should behave and that your word is your bond," Roblan said. "Your neighbor is your neighbor."
Many political experts say small-town mythology and nostalgia can help rural lawmakers extend their careers.
In Idaho, a vast majority of growth in the past decade has come around Boise, the state's largest city and a relative Democratic stronghold, but the Legislature is controlled by rural Republicans and is expected to stay that way even as redistricting is likely to eliminate some rural seats. Perhaps the most important r-word in Idaho politics is rancher.
"You'll have urban people that say, 'Well, my father was raised on a farm,' or, 'When I first started out, I was on a farm,' " said Bruce Newcomb, a rancher, Republican and former House speaker from Burley, population 9,000. "There will come a time, maybe the next generation, when that won't be there. But there's still quite a connection there."
Gary Moncrief, a professor of political science at Boise State University who studies state legislatures, said the lag between demographic and political shifts could help rural lawmakers.
"Everybody wants to talk about how redistricting is going to change things, but the reality is it doesn't change things overnight," Moncrief said. "It changes things very slowly. Most of those rural legislators don't actually get washed away. They wind up in a district that's a little more suburban, but they still know how to get elected, for a while."
The changes usually affect Republicans more than Democrats, who long ago lost power in most rural areas. In some states, particularly in the West, Republicans are sometimes seen as too rural, preoccupied with natural-resource development and land rights and lacking common ground with voters in the region's growing urban and suburban areas who worry about education and quality-of-life issues.
Schoesler, whose district will be redrawn to maintain an approximately equal population to others, could add voters from the edge of the area, near the Hanford nuclear reservation. Then again, it could pick up voters in more rural places.
No matter what, he does not expect the bulk of his constituents to change. Nor does he expect his Democratic opponent to be another farmer. In 20 years, it never has been. "That," he said, "is a minority position right now."
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