While I talk about Guam politics a lot, I also study it very closely. By paying close attention, a lot can be figured out. One thing I get asked about often is why getting into the Legislature is so hard for new candidates. The answer to this is fairly simple and it is based in numbers.
In general, there are three types of Guam senators, old hands, new hands and flash bulbs. The flash bulbs are the easiest to explain. They usually get elected to one or two terms, then burn out and hardly ever return to the legislature. There is a sort of inside-out effect that afflicts many new senators and this leads many of them to burn out in one or two terms. From the outside the legislature appears to look and act differently than it does from the inside. From the outside, a person might think that if elected, they could change things. In the end, most get overwhelmed by inertia or the backstabbing politics that seems to emerge at every turn.
Old hands are those senators who can get elected fairly readily in any given cycle, as long as they avoid serving chili dogs for lunch. Usually, these senators have built a careful foundation over the years to fairly firmly establish themselves. To maintain this foundation, they avoid open or public conflict and mostly stay out of public fights. They also never cut their base of support. The old cliché, “you have to dance with those who brung you,” applies. But there is even a limit to this rule. In the current legislative context, there is a 60 percent support level on a given topic and the 12 percent level base group can hurt more than help.
New hands are senators who are striving to become old hands, but they tend to make more mistakes. They haven’t learned to hide their feelings well enough to know that support is an ongoing roiling wave that doesn’t follow any sort of tidal pattern. Some mistakes can cause them to lose elections, but they can return if they have an interest.
Since 1996, legislative majorities have followed a fairly predictable pattern. As an example, when democrats run the executive branch, the republicans get exiled to the legislature. Since they have nothing to lose, the out group can work hard to build a solid majority around old hands and then maintain this as a sort of power base. When republicans take over the executive branch, legislative power is affected by rank recruitment into director positions. This then causes a democrat out group to develop that and then concentrate on the legislative side. Few republicans would want to risk a stable director position for the unstable legislative branch. Also, even if a director runs, they have to do their fulltime jobs and run at the same time. Full time work and the legislature don’t mix very well.
In essence, getting elected to the legislature is more a function of which party controls the executive branch over time. Six out of sixteen years have seen a democrat as governor and we have had democrat legislative majorities formed around the exiled democrats seeking placement in the legislature. Since the republicans have had twelve straight “salad day” years running the executive, the republican legislative side has been weakened. Of course a third, non-aligned party will likely shatter this cycle in the near future. With two dominant parties, this give and take balance fits a fairly regular cycle of equilibrium. With a third political party, real change can and will happen. It’s just a matter of time.