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.
Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, a nonprofit citizens government watchdog, said that in Dorfman’s defense, she’s going to another public service job.
“We usually take issue when they leave for a lobbyist position … a much higher-paying job to influence the system they were part of,” he said.
Regardless of what Dorfman is doing next, Schroeder and others say special elections aren’t the ideal way to elect politicians. In addition to being costly, they occur outside the usual fall election season, and campaigns are compressed. Thus voters don’t get to know the candidates well, and turnout is consistently low.
Lingering in their seats
Despite the early exits by Dorfman, Stenglein and Andrew, they tend to be the exception at the county level, where a board seat can provide a cozy perch sheltered from much of the direct criticism faced by City Council members and legislators.
Metro area county boards offer numerous examples of politicians who have been comfortably seated for a generation. Scooting out of office early — rather than hanging on for decades — would appear to line up with the once-popular notion of term limits.
Some of Dorfman’s colleagues appear to have settled comfortably into warm seats. Commissioner Randy Johnson of Bloomington has been in office since 1979. Peter McLaughlin has held his seat since 1991. Chairman Mike Opat has been seated since ’92.
Across the river, Ramsey County Board Chairman Rafael Ortega has been in office since 1995. Commissioners Janice Rettman and Victoria Reinhardt joined that board in 1996.
‘Don’t appoint yourself’
Voters may accept both brevity and longevity, but in Minnesota, they won’t go for what Schier called “outrageously self-serving” actions.
The most famous such example came in 1976, when Gov. Wendell Anderson resigned and appointed himself to the U.S. Senate to fill the seat of Walter Mondale, who had been elected vice president. Voters turned against Anderson and not only ousted him in 1978, but smacked down the entire DFL ticket.
“In other words, you can move up, as long as you don’t appoint yourself,” Schier said.