Alan Rosenthal, Who Reshaped Legislatures, Dies at 81
By KATE ZERNIKE
Published: July 11, 2013
Alan Rosenthal, a political scientist whose ardent belief in representative democracy led him to help reshape and strengthen state legislatures across the country and to criticize their excesses and ethical infirmities, died on Wednesday at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 81.
The cause was cancer, the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, where he was director from 1974 to 1993, said.
Mr. Rosenthal had studied legislatures in all 50 states, and worked to change the organization or policies of 35. Among lawmakers and fellow political scientists, he championed a belief that government could be a force for good, and argued — despite public cynicism — that democracy was not broken.
“He in a lot of ways was the conscience of legislatures,” said Karl Kurtz, the director of the Trust for Representative Democracy at the National Conference of State Legislatures, which itself was shaped by the recommendations in a report by Mr. Rosenthal in the 1970s. “He was always urging them to do better.”
Among the graduates of his institutes for lawmakers were two former governors, John Engler of Michigan and Pete Wilson of California, and two former senators, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland and Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming. In a tribute in the National Conference’s newsletter, Mr. Simpson called Mr. Rosenthal “one of the greatest influences in my life as a legislator.”
But Mr. Rosenthal was also known for approaching his subject with pragmatism and an irreverent wit.
Observing the Ohio General Assembly, he decided to test the old saying that likened the legislative process to sausage making, so he visited a sausage factory. His conclusion, written for State Legislatures magazine in 2001, was that sausage making was cleaner, more efficient, more collaborative and better labeled.
Between consulting with legislatures, leading institutes for up-and-coming politicians, and writing and editing 19 books, Mr. Rosenthal worked as a guest clown for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was a donor to its clown college in Florida and often took his children there to watch graduation, where clowns performed their routines. (At the invitation of a former student, he also served as a judge for the Miss Las Vegas pageant in 2000.)
When Mr. Rosenthal started out as a young professor of political science in the mid-1960s, legislatures were by far the weakest branch of state governments, with most power centered in governors’ offices. They had little staff or office space. A report ranking their effectiveness was called “The Sometime Government.”
Mr. Rosenthal believed that they could be the most responsive and effective examples of representative democracy. If they were to be equal, he believed, they had to be professionalized. As a result of his advice, legislatures across the country created staff and committees, ethics laws and nonpartisan budget offices, so lawmakers would not have to rely on executive branch estimates of what programs would cost. In Connecticut, for instance, the legislature went from an every two years to an annual schedule, increased salaries and set up a computerized bill-tracking system.
In later years he often advised legislatures on ethics and campaign finance, pushing for contribution limits, restrictions on how campaign money could be used and full disclosure of lobbyist spending.
Assuming the part of political anthropologist, Mr. Rosenthal cultivated encyclopedic knowledge of statehouses, getting to know their power brokers, both elected and unelected.
In his home state, New Jersey, he served as the tiebreaking vote on the Congressional Redistricting Commission in 1992 and 2001, and for state legislative redistricting in 2011, leading one political Web site to declare him the most powerful unelected person in the state.
While calling himself a moderate Democrat, he said that working with legislators had worn down his partisan “edge.” And his work on the commissions won him praise for fairness from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Mr. Rosenthal was born in Manhattan on March 18, 1932. His parents divorced when he was young, and he lived with his mother, a teacher, and his grandmother.
After graduating from Harvard, he joined the Army. Stationed in West Germany during the early years of the cold war as part of the Counter Intelligence Corps, he infiltrated the local Communist Party to cultivate informants. Returning home, he received a doctorate in politics from Princeton and took a job with Rutgers, where he remained until his death.
He is survived by his wife, Lynda Kresge; two sons, John and Tony, and two daughters, Kai and Lisa, from his first marriage, to the former Lavinia Lamont; a stepson, Nicholas; and eight grandchildren.