Career Politicians? More, Please!

Fellow Aberdeen arguer Colter Hawk Heirigs asks a ponder-worthy question: what is the definition of “career politician”? And does Congresswoman Kristi Noem meet that definition?

Back in 2010, then four-year state Rep. Kristi Noem ran a campaign rallying against “career politicians” when she took on Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, who Noem identified as a “career politician.”

In 2010, Herseth-Sandlin had only held office for six years, as she was first elected in a special election in June of 2004.

Five years later, the year is now 2015 and Noem is now on her ninth year of her own career in politics, exceeding Herseth-Sandlin’s own tenure by four years come election day 2016 [Colter Hawk Heirigs, letter to the editor, that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.08.12].

Rep. Kristi Noem
Rep. Kristi Noem: making politics her career yet?

For the record, back in 2010, candidate Noem appeared to define “career” as “one decade” when she vowed to serve no more than ten years in Washington. That vow lost its explicit edge during Rep. Noem’s very first term in Washington. But let’s not look to Kristi Noem for linguistic clarity.

Let’s look at career and politician separately. I can’t think of a good rule for a minimum time to qualify as a career, though I get the sense one can change jobs dozens of times but change careers only once, maybe twice in a lifetime. Whatever the timeframe, we usually use career in a positive way. We give parties and gold watches to folks for lengthy careers. We appreciate anyone who does good work, but we extend more admiration to people who commit to a profession for a lifetime. Our experience suggests that the longer one does a job, the more one can learn and the better one can perform that job. Absent other evidence, a longer career suggests greater skill, accomplishment, and reliability.

Career only turns negative when it modifies some objectionable professional commitment, like career criminal… or, in popular parlance, career politician. And it only turns negative at our political convenience: Karl Mundt represented South Dakota in Washington for over thirty years. Tom Daschle did that work for 26 years. John Thune has done that work for seventeen years and did political work of other forms for another decade before that. Various parties may bash Mundt, Daschle, and Thune for the quality of their work, but the length of their public service to South Dakota does not in itself seem a bad thing.

I know that the folks I approach with petitions who say, “Oh, I’m not a politician” aren’t thinking about Aristotle. But harkening to the Greek origin of the wordpolitician should refer to anyone engaged in the art of crafting and maintaining the laws that govern the polis, the community. In a democracy, that’s everybody, including those of us who circulate petitions and those of you who sign them. In a democracy, denigrating politicians means denigrating ourselves and our democratic ideals. For democracy to work, we must view politics as a noble and necessary calling, not a dirty word. We all must make politics part of our careers, and we should admire politicians who commit to the intelligent study and practice of statecraft.

Heirigs isn’t using career politician to undermine democracy. He’s holding Kristi Noem accountable for doing that in 2010 against a career politician whose longevity in Washington she now seeks to surpass.


13 Responses to Career Politicians? More, Please!

  1. larry kurtz

    Noem: Minimum Itself Linguistic First.

  2. Not sure I can define “career politician” in specific terms, but I know it when I see it.

    Mike Rounds is quite successful in business, but he meets my definition of career politician. 10 years in the state senate (part time legislator), plus 8 years as governor, plus 6 year term in the US Senate. Three separate offices spanning 24 years = career politician. Though I discount state legislative service standing alone as qualifying someone as a career politician since it’s only 2 months a year.

    If John Thune runs again in 2016 he will meet my definition of career politician, as he will have served 18 years in congress and seeking 6 more years.

    Stephanie Herseth did not meet my definition of career politician, and Noem doesn’t yet. But if Noem herself classifies Stephanie’s 6 1/2 years in Congress as “career politician” then it’s fair game for her opponent to use Noem’s own definition against her. Something tells me that Noem aspires to be a career politician, and will not leave office after 10 years but will glue her arse to that government chair till someone shows up with a pry bar.

  3. Rohr’s “know it when I see it” likens career politicians to pornography. I think Rohr meant to do that.

  4. larry kurtz

    Noem is more a career parasite: latching on to the pig and living high on the hog rather than actually bringing home any bacon.

  5. mike from iowa

    These wingnuts are career,but they aren’t politicians. They are obstructionist,deadbeats sucking the gubmint teat and not worrying about getting re-selected to suck more teat. They also aren’t doing anything to advance America. The hoch bros should pay their way since they represent the koch bros at every turn. I’d love it if my SS check brought me $174,000 simoleons for doing nothing five days a week.

  6. Heidi Marttila-Losure

    “In a democracy, denigrating politicians means denigrating ourselves and our democratic ideals.”

    Hear, hear!

    I think the same thing when people declare themselves “anti-government.” You can be opposed to government actions, the government’s size, or bureaucracy and incompetence, but to be opposed to the government itself is to be opposed to American ideals, the Founding Fathers, the whole ball of wax. It’s “We the People,” people!

  7. Good catch, Cory. I’m not for term limits; that’s what voters are for. But I much prefer the idea of the citizen legislator who serves for a few years then moves on back into the private sector. IMO, new people looking at our nation’s problems with fresh eyes are more favorable than those with 30 years of placid seniority looking backwards at “this is how we have always done it.”

  8. Roger Cornelius

    It would be a rarity to find any politician that isn’t a career politician. Can anyone name just one.
    It has always been my opinion that once they elected they become career politicians.
    The taste of money and power are hard to overcome.

  9. Thanks, Heidi! We need that reminder that the government is us.

    Rohr and Roger point out two good reasons to rotate our leaders regularly: avoid complacency and the corruption of money and power. But is that different from other industries where we seem perfectly comfortable with individuals sticking with one company, working through the ranks, rising to the executive board, and using their experience to run the company well for years? Would we ever say the execs of the Fortune 500 are all too complacent and corrupt and thus should be replaced with newcomers?

  10. i disagree w/ your analogy cory. the complacency of public service does not compare.

  11. So a complacency sets in in public service that doesn’t set in in other careers? Why is that? Shouldn’t elections keep public servants from getting complacent?

  12. Don Coyote

    @cah: “But harkening to the Greek origin of the word, politician should refer to anyone engaged in the art of crafting and maintaining the laws that govern the polis, the community. In a democracy, that’s everybody, including those of us who circulate petitions and those of you who sign them. In a democracy, denigrating politicians means denigrating ourselves and our democratic ideals.”

    I find it more than ironic that in using Aristotle to bolster your argument that you forget (or weren’t aware) that in “Politics” Aristotle explicitly differentiates between politicians (politikos) and citizens (politês). In fact Aristotle even distinguishes between a citizen and a “qualified” citizen (exousia) with the power to vote.

    Aristotle also believed in term limits writing about “ruling and being ruled in turn”, espousing a belief that terms should be of short duration with no lifetime tenure and in only rare instances should an office be held more than once.

    And while you extol the virtues of direct democracy and are troubled by the denigration of “ourselves and our democratic ideals”, it’s important to remember that Aristotle felt none of that listing democracy as one of the three deviant forms of government devolved from the correct form of polity/republicanism.

  13. larry kurtz

    thank you doctor politics.