A vast number of candidates for state Legislature won’t be running for office this fall so much as walking. And our government is poorer for it.
As of the recent deadline to file nomination papers, 125 incumbents in the state House and Senate were set to return to office with no Democratic or Republican opponent, according to a State House News Service tally. Summer has barely begun, and barring the unusual successful write-in campaign, we already know who will win nearly two-thirds of 200 seats in the Legislature this November. Talk about anticlimactic elections.
None of this area’s state senators has an opponent. Of 18 state representatives in Essex County seats, five face contests for reelection. Three are incumbents who’ve drawn a challenge from the other major party: Reps. Jim Kelcourse, R-Amesbury; Lenny Mirra, R-Georgetown; and Tram Nguyen, D-Andover. In Nguyen’s case, two Republican newcomers are competing in a primary to face her.
Incumbent Rep. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, has a primary opponent in former School Committee member Marianela Rivera. No other party’s candidates will appear on the ballot. Incumbent Rep. Jerry Parisella, D-Beverly, also has a primary opponent. An independent is running for his 6th Essex District seat, as well.
In the 13th Essex District, representing parts of Danvers and Peabody, a crowd has gathered to fill the seat vacated by retiring Rep. Ted Speliotis, who has spent 30 years on Beacon Hill. Five candidates — a Republican, a Democrat, two Independents and one unaffiliated — returned nomination papers.
And that’s it for the Legislature from the Merrimack Valley and North Shore.
Congressman Seth Moulton, D-Salem, has a challenge from two Democrats and a Republican. However, his colleague on the other side of the region, freshman Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Westford, faces no opponent from any party. This just two years after Trahan squeaked through a crowded, 10-candidate primary and faced two opponents in the general election.
The lack of a challenger is sometimes a sign of approval, that an incumbent is doing a good job. That’s not to say those facing opponents are doing poorly. And, truth be told, other forces are just as likely at work.
Experts say a few factors explain why our political menu is so reminiscent of a “Saturday Night Live” diner that serves only cheeseburgers, chips and Pepsi. As in a few other states, the Massachusetts Legislature is overwhelmingly controlled by a single party. Lines of legislative districts are drawn to advantage its candidates. With no term limits, there are fewer opportunities like the one in the 13th Essex that come with an incumbent leaving office.
Tellingly, such a light ballot isn’t novel in state legislative races. An analysis of the secretary of state’s election data shows it’s been a decade since half of the races for the Legislature were contested in November. (More than 56% of the races had at least two candidates in 2010.) In the past two cycles, one third or fewer contests for House and Senate hand multiple candidates come November.
That says nothing for party primaries, which are forgone conclusions anywhere between 75% and 90% of the time.
Considering the failures of Beacon Hill — from its notorious lack of transparency to its sometimes surprising inefficiency to the occasional scandal — one wonders if any of those faults could be remedied if its members were challenged in real debates every two years in order to keep their jobs. More accountability to the voters, like open government itself, has a cleansing effect.
It may seem counterintuitive in such a divisive political and social climate, but our democracy functions better when oiled by a meaningful give and take about issues and people’s concerns. Alas, it’s not to be in most neighborhoods in our region this fall.