What experience counts?

In response to Professor Cunningham’s post yesterday, someone asked via tweet, “Didn’t Joe Kennedy III just prove that name and $$$ are more important than experience?”  Well it does rather depend on how one defines “experience” and that usually depends on where one stands politically.

What experience is essential for a new Representative?  The roles of a member of Congress include drafting legislation, performing oversight on committees, constituent services, hiring staff and managing multiple offices, giving voice to the myriad concerns of constituents and doing all of this while campaigning internally for a leadership role and externally for reelection.

There are any number of paths to being successful at these roles.  But there is no correct path or perfect training ground.

During the race in the 4th congressional district, Joe Kennedy’s opponents went to great lengths to declare him lacking in the appropriate experience.  At 32, Mr. Kennedy has a degree in industrial engineering from Stanford and a law degree from Harvard.  He spent time in the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corps and served as an assistant district attorney for over two years in two different jurisdictions.

Sean Bielat has three degrees from prestigious schools (Georgetown, Harvard’s Kennedy School, Wharton) and was in the active duty and Marine reserves, reaching the rank of Major.  He worked at the iRobot Corporation and as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company.

Bielat and his supporters believed his military and private sector experience trumped participation in the Peace Corps and service as an assistant DA as a qualifier for Congress.  But that is, obviously, a subjective assessment and it holds no bearing on the ability of a newly elected member to excel at the roles listed above.

The best attribute for a legislator is judgement and canny political skills and good management.  What trajectory leads one to hone these characteristics?

There isn’t just one.  Massachusetts has a long history of sending top-notch legislators to Congress and their paths are quite interesting.

Joe Martin entered the Massachusetts Legislature at 28 from a career in the newspaper industry as did Henry Cabot Lodge who entered the Massachusetts House at 29.

Tip O’Neill ran and lost his first race for the Cambridge City Council during his senior year at BC. He won his first seat in the State House at 24.  After service in WWII, Silvio Conte was 29 when he entered the Massachusetts Senate.

Brian Donnelly entered the Massachusetts House at 27 from a career as a teacher.  The recently departed Joe Early was also an educator and basketball coach and entered the Massachusetts House at the age of 30.

Peter Blute entered the Massachusetts House at 27 after working with the Visiting Nurse Association of Boston.  John McCormack entered the legislature at age 29 from a career in the law.

Indeed, what holds these legislators in the same company is previous experience in a legislature, something neither Kennedy nor Bielat could claim.

Previous legislative service is a characteristic of a full 263 members of the outgoing 112th Congress, the most common career attribute among the members.

One hundred and eighteen have military service in their history.  Eighty one are educators.  There are 5 ordained ministers.  The are 4 former Peace Corps volunteers, 4 former radio talk show hosts, 1 physicist, 7 social workers, and 2 almond orchard owners.

And despite being a nationwide butt of jokes, there’s only one comedian in the Congress, Senator Al Franken.

Experience matters, of course, but it is truly in the eye of the beholder.  Supporters of Bielat publicly fretted about Kennedy’s lack of experience while supporting a candidate making his second run at elective office after having explored the possibility of running as a member of the other party in another state.   That’s a lot of electioneering in a short period of time.

Republicans in the 9th District continue to use William Keating’s years of service as a legislator and DA against him (a career legislator!) while Republicans in the 6th worried not at all about the fact that Richard Tisei has spent his entire adult life as a legislator.

An up and coming Republican from Sutton, Ryan Fattman, has been in elective office since the age of 22.  Should he run for higher office at some point, one will have to listen carefully to hear any of his fellow partisans level the experience charge against him.

Name and financial backing are extraordinarily important to winning elective office.  Experience varies and is truly in the of the beholder, the voters.  Worth noting that had Bielat won, he would have joined a Republican caucus whose Majority Leader has been in elective office since he was 29.

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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