Every now and then, a state representative or state senator gets attention for saying or doing something really stupid. A few days ago, four members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives formally questioned President Obama’s birth certificate. Recently State Representative Curry Todd of Tennessee was arrested for drunk-driving, providing some schadenfreude as he had previously compared illegal immigrants to rats. Maryland State Senator Ulysses Curie claims that he lacked the intelligence to have been involved in a bribery and extortion scheme. The dumbest of them all may be the Montana State Representative who got more than 100,000 youtube views for giving an impassioned speech in favor of drunk driving.
The most obvious reason this happens is that there are a lot of state lawnakers. If you add up all the State Senators and State Representatives (known as Assemblymen in five states and members of the House of Delegates in three others), you’ll realize that there are a total of 7,382 state legislators in the country. In any group that large, you’ll find people capable of doing or saying things that are breathtakingly stupid. The numbers also increase if you add former state legislators and candidates for the office.
Because there are so many state legislators, there are less barriers to be elected into the office than there is with the US Congress. A few months ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education noted that a quarter of state legislators lacked bachelors degrees, compared to eight percent of the US House of Representatives. It’s a bit elitist to say this, but it suggests that dimmer and less-educated candidates are more likely to be stuck at local office. Presumably, the members of the US House who lack college educations are an impressive bunch, as they had to overcome additional hurdles.
The districts are smaller and more homogeneous, which means that many candidates don’t need to impress diverse groups. There will be many single issue voters, and those topics may well outside the mainstream. And things that may be a problem when trying to appeal to a larger group can be an advantage when trying to appeal to individuals within a specific demographic. If the majority of the constituents don’t have college degrees, the lack of one can make someone who wants to be their state representative more appealing.
I’ve noticed that a majority of the complaints about state legislators seem to be about Republicans. There’s probably a slight media bias, as the average center-left reporter will find something a far-right Republican says to be more outrageous than something a far-left Democrat says. It’s also more socially acceptable to mock certain Republican constituencies (ignorant white people, social conservatives, older voters) than it is to mock certain Democratic constituencies (ignorant African-Americans and Hispanics). In addition, after the 2010 and 2011 elections, there are simply more Republican local office holders. The party has complete control over 28 state legislatures, in addition to six states in which the party controls one of the chambers and the heavily Republican Nebraska, which is officially non-partisan. And whenever a party does well, some incompetent people are going to get elected into office and some moderates are going to lose in districts that favor the other party.
The effects are compounded with the New Hampshire House of Representatives. It’s a small state with one of the largest legislative bodies in the country: 400 members, each representing an average of 3,300 residents. 2010 was a very good year for the Republicans, as the House switched from Democratic control to a nearly 3:1 Republican majority. Any swing that big will result in Republicans outside the mainstream becoming lawmakers. This probably explains why there are 22 New Hampshire state representatives endorsing Ron Paul for President.
There are sometimes idiotic small-town mayors who get attention, but they’re often completely unknown outside of their communities. A state representative from the same town would have some impact on the entire state, along with some slightly higher name recognition.
State Senator, State Representative or Assemblyman still sounds like an impressive position, and makes for a catchy headline, even if you don’t cheat and try to suggest that an arrested State Senator was actually a US Senator. It makes ad hominem attacks quite easy. Whenever a state legislator does something stupid, partisans could try to suggest that the actions of one person implicate an entire political party, so there’s also that incentive to advertise any misdeeds. And the crackpots who agree with a crazed state senator would try to use this to bolster their claims, further publicizing the actions of kooky office-holders.