Politicians, not public, served by an early exit

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 21, 2014 - 2:39 AM

Dorfman is latest to leave Hennepin County Board for better job.

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Gail Dorfman

Walking away from a six-figure job with good benefits, flexible hours and off-site bosses would be, for most, a curious career move in tough economic times.

But Gail Dorfman is doing just that after 15 years as a Hennepin County commissioner. She will be out the door March 1, with 10 months left in her four-year term.

Dorfman, 61, is in the enviable position of stepping into what she calls a great opportunity as executive director of St. Stephen’s Human Services, where she will earn $105,000.

But her early exit is the latest reminder of the potential disruption that midterm departures can pose. It will serve county taxpayers with an estimated $85,000 bill for a special election to fill her seat. And until her successor is elected, the district’s constituents won’t have a county representative during the make-or-break debate over the Southwest Corridor light-rail line, which will run from downtown Minneapolis to the southwest suburbs.

“One can understand the appeal of taking a big and significant job, but it has consequences for one’s constituents,” said Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota political science professor. “It would be very tough to run for office again after leaving early.”

Political observers are unable to cite definitive studies about the effects of politicians abandoning constituents in midterm, but the consensus is that few are punished by voters. That’s largely because politicians who leave elected office midterm for private or nonprofit jobs rarely come back to the public sector.

“Even if a politician does alienate constituents, they won’t feel the punishment,” said David Schultz, a Hamline University law professor.

Carleton College political science Prof. Steven Schier said voters generally aren’t all that fond of politicians, so they don’t mind when they leave.

“A lot of people wonder why anybody would run in the first place, so a politician leaving office early isn’t a surprise,” he said.

Schier added: “The thing you have to keep in mind is most voters aren’t paying attention, and memories are short.”

One national exception may be Sarah Palin, who famously resigned midway through her first term as Alaska’s governor, earned millions of dollars on TV, then toyed with a presidential run.

“At the end of the day, she couldn’t run for president after doing that,” Pearson said. “Among the challenges she would have faced is: Why did you leave your constituents?”

Meanwhile, politicians who remain in their seats while running for higher office can take on favorite-son status.

Take Norm Coleman. He was elected St. Paul mayor as a DFLer. Then he switched parties. He ran for governor while still mayor in 1998, lost and was back at St. Paul City Hall the next morning to serve out his term. Four years later, he won election to the U.S. Senate.

Special elections are costly

Dorfman will become the second Hennepin County commissioner to leave midterm in the past couple of years. Mark Stenglein left in June 2012 for another job. His seat remained open until the November general election. In 1999, Dorfman was elected in a midterm election when her predecessor, Mark Andrew, departed early.

Andrew’s early departure from the board was long forgotten by the time he ran for Minneapolis mayor last year. Nonetheless, he lost.

Many examples exist of politicians who left midterm and didn’t look back. Last year, Melvin Carter III left the St. Paul City Council for a higher-paying state job. Last month, Afton Mayor Patricia Snyder stepped down with a year left in her term to spend more time on her private security business.

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