Family Ties and Term Limits

By Stateside Associates

The Kennedys, the Bushes, the Daleys–all families that come to mind when I think of political dynasties. Lesser known families include the Goodmans of Las Vegas, the Runners of California or the Chu/Engs also of California. In each of these examples, a spouse chose to run for the other’s seat once term-limits forced the spouse out of office. Are term limits creating more of these political family dynasties?

In July 2011, Carolyn Goodman was sworn in as the new Mayor of Las Vegas, replacing her husband, Oscar B. Goodman, who was term-limited from running again. Mr. Goodman was a vocal critic of term limits in the media, and stated that he wanted to run for mayor again. Instead, his wife ran for the seat. While campaigning, Mrs. Goodman frequently introduced herself as “Oscar’s wife” and campaigned on continuing her husband’s policies.

Family member successions are becoming more common in California, since the state has strict term limits. One example is George and Sharon Runner. When Mr. Runner was term limited out of the California Assembly in 2002, Mrs. Runner ran and won his former seat. In 2010, after Mr. Runner was elected to the state Board of Equalization, Mrs. Runner again ran and won election to his newly vacated seat. In the other California example, Judy Chu was termed out of the Assembly in 2006 and her husband, Mike Eng, ran and won the seat he still holds today.

However, this is not necessarily a new phenomenon. In 1966, Alabama Governor George Wallace was facing term limits, and attempted to change the law. Unable to get the law changed in time, he had his wife run on his platform and promise voters that he would serve as her “number one assistant.” Mrs. Wallace was successful—she beat 10 primary opponents and won the general election by an overwhelming margin.

If the purpose of term limits is to prevent career politicians and encourage citizen legislators, is familial succession usurping the process? When family members run for a termed-out relative’s seat, they essentially run as an incumbent. If voters know what is in their best interests and decide to keep an incumbent (or his or her familial replacement) in office, then aren’t they, in essence, rejecting term limits?

Of course, elections impose term limits every 2-4 years. If voters decide an elected official is no longer fit for the office, they elect someone new. This was a widespread occurrence in 2006, 2008 and 2010, and is likely to happen again in 2012.

In looking specifically at the Goodman example, many expect Mr. Goodman to act as Las Vegas’ “shadow mayor.” In an interview, when Mrs. Goodman was asked to discuss what budget cuts she would make, she deferred to her husband, “you might speak to that.” If Mr. Goodman truly acts as the “shadow mayor,” would Las Vegas voters have been better off with Mr. Goodman continuing as Mayor?

Critics of term limits argue that they reduce institutional memory and knowledge of those in the elected office, causing more reliance on lobbyists. A recent study conducted by the Center for Governmental Studies, “Citizen Legislators or Political Musical Chairs: Term Limits in California,” concludes that term limits are undermining the relative power of the legislative branch. The report discusses how legislative leadership and experience has weakened, leading to less effective oversight of the executive branch and lower levels of legislative expertise. This leaves us, as government relations professionals, dealing with a less effective counterpart in elected officials, and in many cases, forcing us to act as an educator of the issues at play. While familial succession does not fully solve this problem, when family members assume the reigns of elective office, the voting public usually retains a level of institutional knowledge and governing expertise.

As a state government affairs professional, how do you feel about term limits? Have term limits proven to be a well intentioned failure? Do you see familial succession happening more frequently in states with term limits? How do term limits affect institutional knowledge and relationships built up over time and how does the electoral transfer of office from one family member to another help or hinder our efforts to represent clients?

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