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Are Long-Serving Legislative Leaders a Thing of the Past?

As the nature of legislative service evolves, leaders with years—even decades—of experience may become an endangered species.

By Taylor Huhn  |  April 10, 2024

When Mississippi House Speaker Phillip Gunn officially handed off the speaker’s gavel on Jan. 2 this year, it marked the end of his 12 years as the chamber’s leader and the longest term of service of any state house speaker in the country. The exchange also marked the first time that many members of the chamber had experienced a transfer of power to a new leader, Rep. Jason White.

Part of the beauty of representative democracy is that, while the cast of characters involved changes constantly, the institution itself remains. Of course, some of those characters have longer stints than others, and legislative leaders can have an outsized impact on the institution during their time of service. However, as the nature of legislative service evolves, the role of leaders may be changing as well, with fewer serving for multiple years—or even decades.

“We live in a world where people expect everything fast. I think that people have this belief that if you have extensive legislative experience, then you aren’t as in touch with the people.”

—Robin Vos, Wisconsin Assembly speaker

Gunn was not the only long-serving leader to step down in the last year. In early 2023, then-Senate President Peter Courtney of Oregon retired after a whopping 20 years as the leader of his chamber. His retirement made North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger the new title holder as the nation’s longest-tenured active Senate leader, at 13 years as of January. On the House side, Speaker Robin Vos of Wisconsin became the country’s longest-serving active speaker when Gunn stepped down, with 11 years holding the gavel as of January. Other long-tenured current leaders include Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers, who has served for 11 years; and Connecticut Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, New York Speaker Carl Heastie, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Hawaii Senate President Ron Kouchi, all of whom have served for nine years each.

The leaders who have served a decade or more note that a lot has changed during their tenure.

“The thing that’s changed the most is the condition of the state from a financial standpoint and from an economic growth standpoint,” Berger says. Vos and Looney both note changes in how their chambers operate. Vos says that unpredictable, late-night sessions have become rarer under his leadership, while Looney says that the COVID-19 pandemic had permanent impacts on the way that the Connecticut Senate conducts business through remote and hybrid means.

All three of the leaders noticed a change in the legislators themselves.

“We have a higher rate of new legislators coming in wanting to get stuff done right away,” Vos says. “People are looking for quicker answers, and I think that sometimes challenges the institution as we try to maintain decorum.”

For both Looney and Berger, the party balance in their chambers has changed significantly. Looney experienced a chamber tie in 2016, while Berger is the only member of his caucus still in office who was there when they were in the minority. He says that the institutional memory of “what it was like to be on the short end of things” helped prepare him to be the chamber’s leader.

Interestingly, the time served by the current veteran legislative leaders doesn’t come close to the longest-serving state legislative leaders in U.S. history. Vos’ 11 years are impressive, but they might feel like the blink of an eye to former Speaker Mike Madigan of Illinois, whose 38 years as speaker is the longest ever (although it did not come without some controversy). He held that position continuously from January 1983 to January 2021, except for the 89th General Assembly (1995-96). Former Lt. Gov. John Wilder of Tennessee holds the record on the senate side with 36 years, from 1971 to 2007. Three other leaders made it more than three decades: South Carolina Speaker Solomon Blatt, Georgia Speaker Tom Murphy and Maryland Senate President Mike Miller.

With no current state leaders even close to 30 years in office, is the age of multidecade legislative leaders over? Vos believes so. “We live in a world where people expect everything fast. I think that people have this belief that if you have extensive legislative experience, then you aren’t as in touch with the people. And I don’t agree with that, but I think that has become more and more of the norm.”

Berger says that “you will continue to see folks that hang around for a decade. But beyond that, I think it gets more and more unlikely.”

Looking ahead, it seems unlikely the current class of legislative leaders will get to 20 years. Turnover in these positions is high: Since the 2022 elections, 45 of the 108 total top leader positions in all the states and territories have changed hands. That’s about 42% of all leaders in just two years. For the newest leaders, it’s too soon to tell if any have the potential for 20-plus years holding the gavel. Term limits will play a role in a few states, whether those limits affect all legislators or are specific to leadership positions.

For leaders unconstrained by term limits and hoping to make it multiple decades, the current veterans have some advice. Berger says that self-awareness is key and emphasized the value of staff. “Having a talented staff is probably the most important thing for you to be successful. Having people that understand you, that understand the legislative process, that understand your members and what they are trying to accomplish.”

Looney advises leaders to build good relationships with members on both sides of the aisle. And Vos says he tells new legislators that “you have to decide early on if this is going to be your last job in elected office, or if it’s going to be a stepping stone to something else. Neither one is a bad choice. Neither one is wrong. I made the choice that the legislature was going to be my last elected office. That means that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to protect the institution, even if it means it might not be the best for Robin Vos’ future, but it’s the best for the institution.”

We won’t know any time soon whether the current leaders will make into the ranks of those who lasted 30 years. But as those leaders look to the future, Looney might have the best advice of all: “You have to love the job. You have to look forward to coming to the capitol every single day. If that goes stale for you, it’s time to leave.”

Taylor Huhn is a program manager in NCSL’s Leaders and International Program.

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