Why Would Anybody Want to Run for Public Office?

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Image by Thomas Wolter from Pixabay

Among the drawbacks to serving in public office is that you must labor long hours for not much pay and few successes. In too many cases, public service is not only an economic hardship but a sacrifice of one’s time away from family and friends. It’s a wonder anyone opts to run.

Hardships of officeholding were highlighted when two dozen Washington state legislators — an unusually large exodus — announced their decision not to run for reelectlon in 2022. Many departing legislators blamed their farewell to Olympia on family considerations; others mentioned economic hardship. One departing lawmaker anonymously said, “There’s a lot of inaction in Olympia. I can get a job with better pay and at the same time have a life.” 

Recognizing that finances are challenging for younger, less affluent legislators, Lt. Gov. Denny Heck said it showed the need for a “material” boost in legislators’ salaries. Heck himself entered the legislature in 1976 when the pay was $3,800 a year. Even in days when a buck bought two cups of coffee, the low pay was a stumbling block.

Although the Washington Legislature meets only 60 days in election (even) years and 105 in odd years, months between sessions are filled with committee meetings, work sessions, constituent work, and the need to communicate with citizens. For most lawmakers, it’s a full-time job. They’re paid an annual salary — set by the Washington Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials — of $56,881 with a per diem of $120. (Legislators will get a 1 percent pay increase in July.)

The state’s 147 legislators shoulder a heavy responsibility. They serve the public as the board of directors of a $82 billion corporation responsible for roads, education, and social services. They make laws, levy taxes and decide important matters of policing, human rights, labor relations, health care, and tribal and government affairs, as well as the environment. The lawmakers’ actions affect every citizen in the state. 

Observers like Lt. Gov. Heck argue increasing pay would help diversify the legislature, ideally turning it into a “mirror of society.” But minority leader J.T. Wilcox (R. Yelm) recently said yes, serving’s a sacrifice, but he believes the GOP caucus is “already as diverse as I’ve seen it.” 

Truth be told, legislative pay scales skew wildly across the country. New Mexico offers no pay, although it has a healthy per diem; New Hampshire pays a flat $100 with no per diem. At the other end of the pay spectrum, state houses in California and New York operate full time and legislators take home six-figure salaries.

City council salaries average $37,232 throughout the nation. At the high end are Los Angeles ($207,000 annually) New York, and San Francisco ($148,000). Some city councilmembers hold other jobs. Seattle and King County Councilmembers are among the better paid — Seattle at $140,000 and King County at $135.526 annually. In Tacoma, they’re doing the job for $30,132.

Port of Seattle Commissioners, elected to oversee one of the nation’s busiest airports as well as one of the busiest marine ports, are paid $48,731 annually along with $120 per diem not to exceed $1,500. Seattle School District directors manage a $1 billion budget for 50,000 students, being paid a paltry $4,800 per year. They have no personal offices, no assistants, no independent researchers and very little empathy. 

Perhaps it’s simplistic to say citizens get what they pay for. In addition, there can be little doubt that better compensation, working conditions, and support staff attract a more diverse and expert public servants. Such independent legislators also are in a better position to avoid being led around by the nose by lobbyists and well-armed administration staffs.

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Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Another drawback for public servants: It used to be that serving well was the ticket to a fine job afterward, but that no longer seems to hold true. Randy Revelle after being King County Executive seemed to drop from prominence, as have former mayors Nickels, Murray, Schell, Durskan, and McGinn. You fall from favor in this town. Holding high office is generally a bad career move.

  2. Gregoire still seems to be hanging on there – boosting economic growth for all she’s worth. I can’t say for sure that any of the gentlemen you cite really qualify for the “serving well” distinction, in the popular view – a couple sure don’t – but it may be that after a term or two sitting in those seats, they begin to be a little too conscious of the down side, to be enthusiastic candidates for that kind of business statesman role.

  3. The increasingly vicious harassment of elected officials also is leading some to leave office. For so little pay and such often frustrating work, these personal attacks — especially against women — can be the final straw https://www.axios.com/2021/12/08/women-politicians-under-siege-threats
    A few years ago at an event celebrating efforts to elect more women, I talked with a Seattle area school board member who had decided not to run again because of the level of threats she had faced.

  4. Just a couple of quick questions.

    1. Does anybody here think the State government is functioning well? Washington State certainly doesn’t have the gridlock of the other Washington, but one big reason office holders leave is “nothing gets done”. So law makers leaving isn’t a problem, right? Either fix the problems or get out of the way and let somebody else have a shot.

    2. Does anybody here really believe that our current office holders are “unicorns” or “special snowflakes” who can’t be replaced? Maybe the new folks will do a better job? They certainly can’t be worse. History shows the longer folks stay in government, the more corruption they engage in.

    3. Does anybody actually believe the public would vote yes on a raise for the State Legislature? Those folks in Olympia work for the public and if the public thinks 60 grand is enough money, that’s the way it should be right?

    Jean Godden, you write about politician turnover like it’s some sort of crisis or emergency and it’s not. Maybe for the political class, journalists, the “old friends network” who think they should run this State forever, but not for the working class or voters. If somebody wants to leave public service, I say “Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out”. New people will come in and things will change, likely for the better.

  5. The exodus of a large number of lawmakers is worrisome as it takes time for electeds to learn the ropes and become more senior and effective. If you want things accomplished, you need veterans as well as enthusiastic newbies. We will be losing a lot of both.
    From my own experience (12 years on Seattle’s council), I have to say the last four years were most productive with things like paid parental leave, commercial recycling and a metropolitan parks district as examples. There’s more, but I not running and mother always told me not to brag.

  6. The criticism that one gets from the opposing party doesn’t hurt nearly as much as what they get from their own party. While working in a legislative body requires occasional compromise, the constituents generally do not see it this way.

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