Eric Davis: Choosing the right time to step down
Earlier this month, Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, told his constituents that he would not seek another term in this year’s election. Sharpe, first elected in 2002, currently serves as chair of the House Education Committee.
In an interview with the Independent’s John Flowers, Sharpe explained his decision by saying, “There’s an ability to have new faces and new energy and new ideas present in the State House. That’s a good thing. I’d like to spend more time with my grandkids and traveling with my wife. It all added up to the decision to let someone else take my place.”
Sen. Carolyn Branagan, R-Franklin, like Sharpe first elected to the Legislature in 2002, also told her constituents last week that she would not be running this year. Her explanation for stepping aside was similar to Sharpe’s. As she told John Walters of Seven Days, “I love my job. I love the work we do. But I’ve been there 16 years, and it’s time. This is supposed to be a citizen legislature. I think 16 years is enough. There’s nothing bad that happened. I’ve just felt for several weeks that this should be my last term.”
One of the hardest things for any elected official not subject to term limits is deciding when to call it a career. This is especially the case for long-time legislators such as Sharpe and Branagan, who although they represent politically competitive districts, would be favored for re-election had they run. There is often the temptation to go for one more term, to try one last time to get a piece of desired legislation all the way through the process.
There is also a social aspect of continuing to serve in the Legislature. Since many legislators spend the week in Montpelier during the session and return home on weekends, camaraderie and friendships develop among members, and in Vermont, those relationships often cross party lines. Giving up membership in the group is hard for some.
When senior members leave, they are often missed by their colleagues, especially if they have earned the respect of the leadership and their peers enough to be named chairs or vice-chairs of important committees. This will be the case with Sharpe, whose Education Committee is responsible for considering measures dealing with both the organization and the funding of school districts across the state.
Sharpe noted that some relatively new members of the committee — including Reps. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, and Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury — have already demonstrated the expertise and leadership skills needed to be important members on education policymaking in the years ahead.
Neither Sharpe nor Branagan consider themselves indispensable, and are willing to step aside at a high point of their careers. Unfortunately, some legislators, at both the state and federal levels, hold on too long, and end up getting dismissed by their constituents.
Examples in Washington include former Sens. J. William Fulbright, D-Arkansas, and Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, who were defeated in primary elections by experienced challengers after Senate careers of 30 and 36 years, respectively. In both cases, the challengers argued that it was “time for a change,” that their states needed new blood in the Senate, and that the incumbents had become so much creatures of Washington that they had lost touch with their constituents.
Closer to home, former Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington, a Senate institution in his own right and the dean of the Legislature, was defeated in the November 2016 general election, finishing in fourth place in a three-member district.
In doing so, the voters brought to an end a Montpelier career that had begun when Doyle was first elected in 1968. Doyle ran for one election too many and the voters of Washington County decided that 48 years was long enough.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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