Trading Down: Some Lawmakers Leaving Congress for Lower-Profile Jobs

After one term, Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod wants to leave: “It’s really not the place for me.”

Members of the House of Representatives leave the U.S. Capitol after passing a continuing resolution to fund the U.S. government that would also delay enrollment in the Affordable Care Act for one year September 30, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
March 3, 2014, 10 a.m.

Wash­ing­ton has be­come so tox­ic these days that one mem­ber of Con­gress is leav­ing after just one term — to run for a po­s­i­tion in loc­al gov­ern­ment. After only a year in of­fice, Demo­crat­ic Rep. Glor­ia Negrete McLeod of Cali­for­nia plot­ted her es­cape from the House to seek a seat on the San Bern­ardino County Board of Su­per­visors. Rep. Glor­ia Negrete McLeod

If she is suc­cess­ful, Negrete McLeod will be­come at least the second mem­ber of Con­gress in two years to move straight from fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to a smal­ler, loc­al con­stitu­ency. Former Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., is now known loc­ally as Judge Todd Platts, ever since he won a seat on the York County Court of Com­mon Pleas in 2013, a year after leav­ing the House. Mean­while, GOP Rep. Tim Griffin is leav­ing the House after two terms to seek a de­cidedly less high-pro­file po­s­i­tion, run­ning for Arkan­sas lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor.

It’s not ex­actly an ex­odus, but the re­verse move­ment catches the eye in a House filled with climbers. Many mem­bers of Con­gress toiled in state or loc­al gov­ern­ment for years to set them­selves up for a gig in D.C. And though plenty of former mem­bers start over in loc­al or state gov­ern­ment after los­ing their seats — for ex­ample, former Demo­crat­ic Rep. Kathy Dahlkem­per, de­feated in 2010, just won a race for county ex­ec­ut­ive in Erie, Pa. — mov­ing the oth­er way for something oth­er than a big-city may­or­alty is un­usu­al.

“It’s been on my mind for a long time, and I felt I could ac­com­plish more here in the county,” Negrete McLeod said in an in­ter­view. “Con­gress is a won­der­ful place. … It’s just really not the place for me. I really just want to be serving the people of the dis­trict.”

Negrete McLeod’s im­plic­a­tion that it has be­come more dif­fi­cult for mem­bers of Con­gress to af­fect con­stitu­ents’ lives for the bet­ter is widely held, push­ing a pair of two-term Re­pub­lic­ans to cut bait and re­tire last year. Con­gres­sion­al of­fices are de­vot­ing a high share of their man­power to troubleshoot­ing con­stitu­ent is­sues in their dis­tricts, but they aren’t passing much le­gis­la­tion that tackles long-term is­sues. The de­cline of ear­marks has also lim­ited Con­gress’s abil­ity to in­flu­ence loc­al de­vel­op­ment and dir­ect fed­er­al pro­jects to their home re­gions.

Those factors have left much of the in­ter­est­ing work of gov­ern­ing to state and loc­al au­thor­it­ies, which com­pelled Negrete McLeod, a former state sen­at­or, to make the switch. In fact, she may have been eye­ing the county post since be­fore she came to Wash­ing­ton. While Negrete McLeod was run­ning for Con­gress in 2012, her state Sen­ate cam­paign ac­count was trans­fer­ring its funds in­to a 2014 county su­per­visor ac­count, be­fore she scored an up­set vic­tory over former Rep. Joe Baca with mil­lions of dol­lars in out­side help from then-New York City May­or Mi­chael Bloomberg’s su­per PAC.

In terms of qual­ity of life, Negrete McLeod’s planned switch may not be a trade down: She will get to ditch her cross-coun­try com­mute and, should she win, main­tain a six-fig­ure salary. Platts’s ju­di­cial salary is $173,791 — all of $209 less than his yearly con­gres­sion­al pay. Plus, he doesn’t have to main­tain two res­id­ences, and he gets a 10-year term to boot.

A few oth­er col­or­ful mem­bers have trod­den this path in re­cent years.

New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an Gor­don Humphrey, a two-term sen­at­or, left Wash­ing­ton in 1990 and ran for a seat in the state Sen­ate the same year. “Now that he’s learned his ap­pren­tice­ship in Wash­ing­ton, he can come up here and do some work,” a con­stitu­ent told The Bo­ston Globe that spring. Humphrey, who was a pro­fes­sion­al pi­lot when he first ran for the U.S. Sen­ate in 1978, served one term in the state le­gis­lature and later ran for gov­ernor sev­er­al times.

A dec­ade later, former Rep. Jim Bar­cia, a Michigan Demo­crat, got squeezed in­to a dis­trict with a Demo­crat­ic col­league after re­dis­trict­ing in 2002, so he ran for (and won) his seat in the state Sen­ate again.

Bar­cia served in the Michigan le­gis­lature un­til he hit his term lim­it in 2011. The ex-con­gress­man’s next ca­reer step was more con­ven­tion­al. He’s now a seni­or coun­selor at The Liv­ing­ston Group, a Wash­ing­ton lob­by­ing firm.

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