Entrenchment Through Term Limits

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY AUG 24, 2019

The law of unintended consequences promises surprised when major changes get implemented. Florida voters in 1992 knew some pros and cons when they approved term limits in 1992. Yet, the policy in many ways entrenches incumbents in exactly the way advocates sought to prevent.

You can see that in candidate filings for the region. Sarasota-Manatee last year ended up a hotbed of political activity, with nearly every seat in the region opened by retirements, ambitions or other unpredictable departures. We enjoyed hard-fought primaries, general election contests and near-perpetual conversation about the direction of the Sunshine State.

This year? You’d never know freshman lawmakers so recently had to fight for their jobs.

Former state Rep. Jim Boyd’s entry into the District 21 Senate race largely sets the local legislative map. He faces Hillsborough Democrat Amanda Linton for a seat opened up by Senate President Bill Galvano’s retirement. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine popular Galvano riding into the sunset at this moment but for term limits. But with eight-year restrictions on lawmakers, this race will be one of few in the area where voters at least face a choice.

State Reps. Tommy Gregory, Will Robinson and James Buchanan, Republican lawmakers who all beat Democrats last November, have yet to draw any foe in 2020. State Rep. Wengay Newton, a St. Peterburg Democrat, will face a Republican challenger in Sharon Russ, but that’s the exception not the rule, and his district is deep blue. Rumors run rampant whether Democrat Kelly Kirschner might challenge Republican state Sen. Joe Gruters, but an entry at this point would be pretty late.

The only truly competitive state legislative race, it turns out, won’t have an incumbent. State Rep. Margaret Good, a Democrat representing a district that Donald Trump carried in 2016, ultimately decided to seek higher office (more on that soon).

So why does no incumbent in the region face credible opposition? I would argue it’s because every credible competitor would rather wait for an open seat to come around. With every House seat vacated for sure in eight years or less, why challenge on incumbent?

Don’t read this as a knick on any incumbent or suggestion these people should be fired. But freshman lawmakers are typically as vulnerable as incumbents get, and we have a lot of freshmen facing re-election. Certainly, none of these one-year veterans boast the loyalty or base of, say, a 14-year Congressional incumbent.

Which brings us back to Good. Why isn’t she running as the only incumbent facing a serious challenge? She’d rather take a shot at one of the biggest names in Southwest Florida.

U.S. Rep. Vern “Who-Knows-When-He’ll-Retire” Buchanan will run as chair of the Florida Congressional Delegation, part of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and a business connected incumbent with his names on several prominent buildings. But for all those strengths, Buchanan will also run in his eighth contested general election.

Yes, Buchanan has always faced a Democratic opponent: Christine Jennings, Keith Fitzgerald, James Golden, Henry Lawrence, Jan Schneider, David Shapiro, and now, Good.

How does he draw such fire? Well, the only way Democrats can take a shot at serving in Congress in by beating Buchanan. The result is someone tries every cycle, with varying results.

That also means whether Buchanan or Good wins, voters will know they have a Congressman who engaged with the community through forums, debates and doorstep conversations come January 2020.

That’s better than being served by an entrenched and untouchable incumbent, which term limits aim to avoid. Somehow, only the office that faces no limit on tenure has proven to be the only one boasting perpetual spirited debate.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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