Moving on Down?

Posted February 24, 2004 at 6:00pm

On the great totem pole of political achievement, the generally accepted rule is “move up or move out.”

From the day a candidate enters his first race, his career is built along a path of stepping stones, and seeking “higher office” is always the next step. This is the way the political universe turns.

Except when it doesn’t.

Sometimes there are Members of Congress who buck the trend — Members who, after their time on Capitol Hill, go on to seek what some might call a “lower office.” A few of these Members have risen up through their state legislatures, come to Washington, and have since returned to their roots — sometimes after losing their Congressional seats or a run for higher office. Former Rep. Jim Barcia (D-Mich.) chose to return to the Legislature in 2002 rather than face Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) in a primary forced by redistricting.

For these former Hillites, working in their state legislatures has become not just a means to an end but an end in itself. The latest example is former Rep. Steve Kuykendall (R-Calif.), who is running in the March 2 primary to reclaim the state Assembly seat he left when he went to Congress in 1998.

The conversion from state to federal Representative and back again is not a well-traveled road, and those Members who have attempted it agree that it is a unique experience.

On one end of the spectrum, there are men such as South Carolina state Sen. Arthur Ravenel (R), who says he has washed his hands of federal politics, never to return after serving four terms in the House from 1986 to 1994.

“I don’t miss anything, absolutely nothing … I’m not going back to Washington,” he said. “I’ve been there, done that, I bought the T-shirt. I have no inclination. I served four terms in the Congress and that was enough for me.”

Ravenel said more than anything he was happy to get back to the South Carolina Senate where “politeness is a way of doing business” after spending eight years on the Hill. The 76-year-old Charleston native returned to the state Senate seat he held from 1980 to 1986 after an unsuccessful 1994 bid for the Republican nomination for governor of South Carolina.

“It’s good to get back down South,” said Ravenel, who refers to the South Carolina Senate as “the Cadillac of elected office.”

“You don’t have the partisanship in a Southern Senate that you’ve got up there

in Congress,” he said.

Ravenel’s feelings notwithstanding, they have not rubbed off on his son. Thomas Ravenel, a Charleston developer and political novice, is seeking the Republican Senate nomination in the race to replace retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.).

But for every Arthur Ravenel there are others like Ohio state Sen. Eric Fingerhut (D), who still have an itch for Washington politics. Fingerhut served one term in Congress from 1993 to 1995 before being swept out of office by the Republican tidal wave of 1994. He came back to Ohio, eventually running for his old state Senate seat in 1998. He said his service in the Ohio Senate has been “refreshing in many ways,” but added, “I still love coming to Washington, I still get the same thrill … you realize that so much of what we do is driven by and constrained by the policies of the federal government.”

Although Fingerhut said he hasn’t been sitting up at night missing Congress, he would like to go back. He is in the midst of a long-shot campaign to claim Ohio Sen. George Voinovich’s (R) seat on the Hill.

One of the tougher parts of returning to state politics, according to some former Members, is losing the image of a national politician.

“You certainly get a little teasing at the beginning,” said Fingerhut, who remembers how the chairman of the state Senate Finance and Budget Committee would playfully remind the former Congressman of his federal service when he first returned to the state government.

“Anytime anyone would say ‘we can’t do this because of the federal government,’ he would just turn and stare at me,” he recalled.

Ravenel also joked about his time in Washington with his state Senate colleagues upon his return to South Carolina.

“When I first came back I said, ‘All right fellas, are you gonna give me my seniority back?’” The comment brought Ravenel a bit of laughter but not his old Senate status.

But once former Members get past the collegial jabs, most admit that there are a lot of pluses to serving in their state governments.

“It’s not an inconsequential-type job,” said Kuykendall, who has been campaigning for the Legislature since September 2003. “I can impact the life of a Californian as much from a state Assembly seat as I can from a Congressional seat. Now that’s not always the case with other states, but it is here in California.”

Since losing his seat in 2000 to now-Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) — who gave up the Los Angeles-area seat in 1998 to run unsuccessfully for governor — Kuykendall has worked as a lobbyist and senior adviser at Strategic Marketing Innovations in Washington, D.C., and said he has learned to get used to life on the other side of the desk.

“It’s much different in that I don’t have the stress of rushing to the floor to make a vote. It’s been nice in that the Capitol police and Sergeant-at-Arms still treat me with a great amount of respect — maybe that was something I didn’t notice as much back then.”

At a more basic level, Kuykendall said one of the things he doesn’t miss from his days as a Congressman is his weekly cross-country commute — a feeling that is shared by many former Members.

“It was just the grind that I felt was really too much for me,” Ravenel agreed. “It was always a hassle getting home and a lot of the times in the winter the planes wouldn’t fly.”

Even Maryland state Sen. Roy Dyson (D), who served in Congress for 10 years before losing a re-election bid in 1990, admits that, although his commute to Annapolis is actually eight miles longer from his Southern Maryland home than the trip to Capitol Hill, it’s not the same hassle. Dyson added that with a much smaller legislative body to work with, he now finds that he can build much closer relationships with his fellow state Senators.

“I know all my Senate colleagues, I know their wives and husbands. It’s a more intimate relationship,” he said.

“It’s kind of like a fraternity or a club,” said Ravenel, who now works with 45 other members instead of 435. “We all get along good together.”

“It’s still a partisan body, but there’s not the level of personal attack that you see in Washington,” added Fingerhut, who is one of only 33 Ohio Senators.

But in assessing what it will be like to rejoin the California Assembly, Kuykendall summed up how many former Congressmen turned state legislators feel about the entire process.

“To some extent the red tape is similar,” he said. “The federal government is a little slower … the only difference is we’ve got a few more years of experience.”