What Do Voters Owe a Contender of a Certain Age?

By Jill Lawrence

May 22, 2014 5 min read

One candidate is an old-timer who offers tradition, history and a wealth of experience. The other, decades younger, argues that it's time for a new generation and new ideas. No, this is not a preview of Hillary Clinton-Marco Rubio 2016. It's playing out right now in a northeast Texas congressional race where a 91-year-old is trying to keep his House seat.

First get past your amazement that somebody would want to serve in Congress at age 91. It takes all kinds, and Republican Rep. Ralph Hall is the kind who likes his job. After failing to clear 50 percent of the vote in a March primary, he's in a runoff Tuesday against John Ratcliffe, who is 48 — young enough to be his grandson.

This is not a typical competition between the tea party and the GOP establishment. Several national tea-partyesque groups have lined up behind Ratcliffe, but Hall has blessings from tea party favorites like former presidential candidates Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee. And while Hall has been in Congress since 1981, and his Washington colleagues are scrambling to help him, Ratcliffe — a former mayor and former U.S. attorney — has his own establishment credentials.

There's no getting around it: This race is about age. For baby boomers like me, so much younger than Hall yet grappling already with younger workplaces and looming retirement, it is both an inspiring and cautionary tale. Inspiring in how Hall is handling his age — there's no hiding it, so he's leaning in. Cautionary in the questions raised by Ratcliffe and many others about how long is too long to hold on, and whether it's harmful — maybe even selfish — to block opportunity for others.

Hall, a World War II Navy Hellcat pilot, is the oldest person ever to serve in the House. His district is dotted with infrastructure that carries his name. He sends holiday hams to constituents. He attends a "Band of Brothers" happy hour in his hometown of Rockwall. He doesn't mind talking about that time in the '30s when he was a pharmacy clerk and sold cigarettes, Cokes and newspapers to Bonnie and Clyde. Oh, and he's a jogger.

A funny campaign ad about his age demonstrates Hall's approach to the elephant in the room. Pointing out various wrinkles on his face, he said he had gotten one from battling Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and others when liberals were pushing Obamacare and attacking gun rights. "And by gosh, I've got room for a few more wrinkles," he concluded.

In his one concession to age, Hall pledges this will be his last race. That leaves some complicated decisions to Ratcliffe, and to voters. Mark P. Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University, framed the dilemma to me this way: "Is it time for Ralph Hall to go, or based on his service to his country in World War II and his long-standing service in Congress, should he be allowed to go out on his own terms?"

In other words, what do voters owe to a respected public servant who is a quarter-century past the age when most people retire? We should note that the norm is different on Capitol Hill, where Michigan Rep. John Dingell is just now stepping down at 87, and South Carolina's Strom Thurmond was 100 when he retired from the Senate.

That certainly blasts a little perspective into the pregame pingpong over the 2016 presidential race. Hillary Clinton would be 69 on Inauguration Day 2017 if she ran and won. Jeb Bush would be nearly 64. Vice President Joe Biden would be 74 — a sprightly age were he still a senator.

By any measure, however, 91 is a spectacular number, and Ratcliffe knows it. He's trying to use euphemisms like "stayed too long," but who could ignore that number? And he doesn't. "At 91, Ralph Hall has served admirably," a Ratcliffe ad begins, and moves along seamlessly to "it's time for leaders who are focused on the next generation ... "

Hall put up a harsh attack ad against Ratcliffe in the final days. Ratcliffe's approach has remained relatively gentle, and for good reason. Hall's promise to retire in 2016 could net him one last term in his heavily Republican district, and Ratcliffe's restraint will ensure that he's well positioned for the next round. Either way, there's a big takeaway for the rest of us: Think about what's next and when to head there. Whether it's congressional service or any other kind of work, to everything there is a season.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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