Thursday, July 14, 2011

(A few) Rural lawmakers hang on, even thrive, as their states become more urban

The headline in today's New York Times is "Some Rural Lawmakers Defy Power Erosion," and in it William Yardley features a couple of state legislators from different states' rural reaches who have managed to stay in office. Indeed, these two men have increased their stature and authority within their state houses--even as rural populations are in sharp decline across the country. Yardley features, for example, Mark Schoesler, a Republican (and a rice farmer) from
Ritzville, Washington, and Ward Armstrong, a Democrat from Bassett, Virginia. Both have leadership roles in their respective state houses--Schoesler as the Washington Senate's Republican floor leader and Armstrong as minority leader in Virginia's House of Delegates.

Here's an excerpt from the story that summarizes how those who do it, do it:
Like other longtime lawmakers, representatives of rural areas in states without term limits tend to hold on longer. Those with the most longevity, and power, are mostly white men and often from states in the South, Midwest and West that have strong rural traditions, even if their populations are now more urban. They succeed in part because experienced hands are still in demand, even amid calls for change in state capitols. There can be a paradox in their power: the regions they come from are often in decline, so their seats may not be hotly contested.
Yardley's story also includes anecdotes from other states in the West. He notes, for example, that the the co-speakers of the evenly divided Oregon house are from adjacent rural districts in the state's southwestern reaches, where timber is king. The two credit their ability to get things done--as well as their election to the leadership posts--to small-town values. The Democrat, Arnie Roblan explained: “It’s our basic beliefs about how people should behave and that your word is your bond. Your neighbor is your neighbor.” As David Frum commented in a recent NPR segment, we could use a little more of that among U.S. congresspersons and senators in Washington.

Finally, Yardley discusses a phenomenon I've often associated with states popularly thought of as rural, even when a majority of their population live in urban areas: a rural mindset and rural values may persist in urban areas of such states if many urban dwellers maintain significant links to rural areas, such as parents and grandparents who still live there. In politics, this phenomenon--which is about both familiarity with the rural and nostalgia for it--seems to create a "lag between demographic and political shifts." Thus, political scientists interviewed for the story suggest, the effects of re-districting because of demographic shifts, won't be felt right away.

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