Throw the bums out? It's easier said than done.

On Maryland Politics

November 21, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

THE MOOD was bright and cheerful at the Democratic caucuses of the General Assembly yesterday. House Speaker Clayton Mitchell and Senate President Mike Miller were both re-nominated for four-year terms. There wasn't a peep of discontent.

It has been another good year for incumbents of both houses. If there was something akin was a voter revolt out there, it hardly dented either body. Sure, some senators and delegates lost in the last election. But the trend of increasingly small turnovers in the membership of both houses continued. This election year just wasn't like the bad old days.

In 1974, for example, 19 members of the Senate did not come back and 82 members of the House failed to return. Those numbers are for all reasons -- primary or general election defeat, retirement or a move to another office, such as a delegate winning a Senate seat. (That year nine House members moved up to the Senate.) The net turnover in the House was 73 in 1974, or 38.8 percent of the total membership of the General Assembly.

That was a bad year. Fortunately for incumbents, it has never been duplicated.

In 1978 and 1982, the turnover rate dropped to 30.9 percent. A total of 58 senators and delegates did not return for another term.

And just four years ago, the turnover rate dropped again to 22.3 percent, with only 42 legislators bowing out of politics.

This year, in what was widely advertised as an era of voter rage, General Assembly incumbents held on better than ever. The net turnover was 41, or just 21.8 percent.

What accounts for this strange staying power of incumbents? Are they more intelligent in 1990 than they were in 1974? More appealing? More representative or responsive?

They probably are more responsive, since more and more

legislators are full-time lawmakers without other employment. In 1971, for example, only two House of Delegates members were full-time. The number jumped to 20 in 1975. By 1983, the figure had risen to 37. In the last session, there were 38 House members who did nothing else but pursue their legislative work. The number is expected to increase still further in the House class of 1991. In the Senate, the trend to full-time lawmakers has gone from just six in 1971 to 49 in 1987.

The trend is national, not just a Maryland quirk. Some have expressed concern that this development runs counter to the idea of a citizen legislative body composed of representatives from a variety of professions. Business, in particular, worries that full-time legislators will be less sympathetic to its interests.

Yet the new General Assembly will be more representative than ever of the general population of the state. For one, it will have more female and minority members. Back in 1967, there were only 15 women legislators, 11 in the House and four in the Senate. Since then, the number of women lawmakers has been increasing steadily. The 1991 legislature will have a total of 44 women, 35 in the House and nine in the Senate.

Minority membership has also risen, from 10 in 1967 to 33 for the new session.

On the other hand, the number of lawyers in the General Assembly has been declining. In 1967, for example, 69 legislators had law degrees. In the last session, only 52 did.

Probably the most important factor in the trend favoring re-election of incumbents has been money. Rarely can challengers match an incumbent in campaign funds. As campaigns grow ever more costly, incumbents have a decided advantage.

Common Cause of Maryland tallied the contributions of political action committees from 1986 to 1990. It found the bulk of contributions going to incumbents. Of the total funds contributed during that period, incumbents received $2,308,670, or 81 percent, compared to $532,847, or 19 percent, for challengers. That 4-to-1 disparity goes a long way toward explaining why times have been good for incumbents.

Of the 20 Senate candidates with the largest PAC contributions, only three were defeated. Two of them, senators Francis X. Kelly and Frank Komenda, were defeated in primaries. The third, Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, lost in the general election.

Figures for the House were similar. Only three of the top 20 PAC recipients -- Joseph Lutz, Michael Gisriel and William Cox -- lost their bid for re-election.

Voters will have to get far angrier than they were in 1990 if they want to effect a change in the well-established trend favoring those already in office.

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