Turnover in the Georgia General Assembly is par for the course, but this year feels different.
Qualifying week—the deadline by which electoral candidates must officially declare their candidacy for an office—has come and gone, and revealed a significant turnover rate. Even long-time power-brokers in the legislature are joining the exodus—ensuring that regardless of who wins the November elections, the General Assembly will look markedly different.
In order to get a better grasp on the breadth of the turnover, I—along with my fiancée—began parsing through the qualifying data (OK, she did most of the work), and here’s what we found. Nearly 50 legislators will not seek reelection—representing almost 20 percent turnover. What is most concerning about this is that more than 40 percent of these lawmakers are currently in positions of power. They include committee chairs and vice chairs, the Senate president pro tempore, and—while technically not a legislator—even the lieutenant governor.
The partisan makeup of the departing lawmakers is relatively proportionate to that of the General Assembly—meaning no political party is necessarily abandoning ship because it sees the writing on the wall. So, what’s behind the legislative flight?
There seems to be a few factors at play, including many are seeking other elected offices, while others have just decided to retire. The most shocking of the retirement announcements came from two pillars of the legislative community: Rep. Terry England (R-116) and Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-53). The former has been in the legislature since 2005 and heads up the powerful House Appropriations committee, while the latter has been a Senator since 2001 and is the influential Senate Rules committee chairman.
“Recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, witnessing my children step into the next phases of their lives, and the many hours away from my dedicated wife and family this job requires has led me to this time reflection,” Sen. Mullis explained. “We have fought the good fight for 22 years, but I have decided I will not be seeking reelection. I will be spending more time with family and friends and looking for ways to serve my community in other capacities.” His statement likely resonates with many others in the General Assembly.
He along with more than 20 lawmakers have decided to retire from electoral politics—at least for the time being. Some undoubtedly are weary of serving, and understandably so. Being a state legislator is a thankless part-time job that comes with a meager paycheck of around 17,000 a year. It takes officials away from their families and full-time jobs for a few months a year—often leaving their careers and personal lives in disarray. In return, they receive year-round constituent requests, have to manage biennial political campaigns, and work in a hyper-partisan and polarized political environment.
Meanwhile, redistricting has encouraged others to bow out of politics. The decennial redrawing of legislative districts sometimes changes the ideological makeup of certain districts and/or moves two incumbents into the same district—forcing the threat of fiercely contested or futile elections. The latest round of redistricting was no different, and some incumbents have little stomach for slogging through such races. Thus, they’ve decided to retire.
Several lawmakers, on the other hand, are leaving their current seats to seek statewide elected posts. At last glance, of the members of the General Assembly, Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller (R-49), Sen. Burt Jones (R-25), Rep. Derrick Jackson (D-64), Rep. Renitta Shannon (D-84), and Rep. Erick Allen (D-40) are all forgoing their current seats and looking to replace Geoff Duncan as the next lieutenant governor.
Sen. Bruce Thompson (R-14), Sen. Lester Jackson (D-2), and Rep. William Boddie (D-62) are running for labor commissioner, which will be held by Mark Butler until January. Sen. Tyler Harper (R-7) and Rep. Winfred Dukes (D-154) are seeking the office of the agriculture commissioner, since Gary Black will not be seeking reelection. Rep. Bee Nguyen (D-89) has decided to run for secretary of state, Rep. Matthew Wilson (D-80) for insurance commissioner, and Sen. Jen Jordan (D-6) is looking to unseat the attorney general.
Meanwhile, one state senator is running for a seat in the State House, five state representatives are seeking seats in the State Senate, two legislators are running for Congress, and one is poised to become ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
The end result of all of this turnover will take its toll on the General Assembly. Turnover is healthy in a democratic republic, but too much turnover at once risks losing irreplaceable institutional knowledge held by veteran legislators. While I am often critical of lawmakers—particularly ones who champion misguided ideas—I am personal friends with some of those who have chosen to give up their seats. They are principled, hard-working individuals, and their departures will be a real loss for Georgians.
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.