Driving the rascals out comes back to mind

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By Merilee Dannemann

In 1992, a little organization sprang up in New Mexico called “Drive the Rascals Out,” calling on voters to vote all incumbents out of the state legislature.
This organization appeared to have just one member – Marvin something – but it caught on with public sentiment and got plenty of news coverage and TV time.
This was the period when “RaymondandManny” was pronounced as one word. New Mexico House Speaker Raymond Sanchez and Senate President pro-Tem  Manny Aragon were quite different in style and substance, but the word symbolized the contempt with which many New Mexicans viewed their state legislature – as incompetent, corrupt and uncouth.
There was a great deal of talk in the media, including careless generalizations implying that all legislators were mere followers, rather than 112 individuals with their own values and priorities. This had an effect: Responsible people became much less willing to run for office.  
A few legislators announced, shortly before filing deadline, that they had decided not to run again. Some of these legislators had solid records as reformers. They were exactly the sort of public officials a fellow like Marvin would want.
Ol’ Marvin had quite a reaction. He went on television and said, in effect, “Wait! I didn’t mean you guys!” He made a public plea to these legislators to reconsider.
(Personal disclosure: My late husband, Sen. Ken Kamerman, was one of those legislators.)  
Marvin had made a common mistake. He had failed to recognize he was not the original inventor of government reform. These others had not only been ahead of him, they had done what he had not. They had run for office, served honorably, and done as much reforming as they could.
Marvin finally realized that these experienced legislators had learned how to get things done and were walking away with that knowledge.
The freshman lawmakers who would replace them would have a steep learning curve and be less effective. More importantly, new lawmakers would know much less about the substance of New Mexico law.
Today we’re hearing new calls for term limits. The issue boils down to an argument about preventing corruption versus institutional memory. Corruption, the influence of special interests, seems to increase with time in office due to the pressure to raise campaign money.  
But if lawmakers weren’t there when particular laws were made, don’t remember what the laws say and why they were enacted, they are less effective in doing their jobs and forced to rely on the unelected staff.   
Under the constitutional separation of powers, lawmakers are supposed to exercise oversight over the executive institutions they created by law.  That is much harder for neophytes who have to learn from scratch.
New Mexico is particularly hampered because we have a part-time volunteer legislature, not much legislative staff, and we are held back by arm loads of statutes in need of improvement or updating and regulatory agencies in need of knowledgeable oversight.   
    If we’re not in favor of changing to a professional paid legislature (I’m not), or adding large numbers of year-round staff members (I’m not), then we had better think again before advocating term limits – unless you, reader, volunteer to run for office and to prepare by studying several volumes of statute books.
Just kidding. Maybe.
It’s predictable that a few legislators will be term-limited by their colleagues via redistricting. They will find their districts redrawn in ways that make it more difficult to run again.
The public probably will never know which of those changes were strictly due to demographics or whether some of those decisions were influenced by other, more personal, factors.  

Merilee Dannemann
© New Mexico
News Service 2011