A Look at California’s Rising Democrats

Posted December 12, 2003 at 5:22pm

Last in a three-part series examining the future of California politics.

The last time Rep. Sam Farr (D) visited the California Capitol, where he served for 13 and a half years in the state Assembly, he knew far more elevator operators and staff people than legislators. [IMGCAP(1)]

“I still have a few friends that served with me,” said Farr, who was elected to Congress in 1993, “but very few.”

Farr’s experience is a perfect metaphor for California politics. Since term limits took hold — limiting Assembly members to six years and state Senators to eight — the political turnover in the Golden State has been dizzying. Not only is the membership in the Legislature changing every few years, but so are all the key leadership positions. The incoming Speaker of the Assembly is a freshman.

“I don’t think that happens in any statehouse in the country,” Farr said.

Consequently, there are powerful term-limited legislators seeking different political offices up and down the ballot. Asked, for example, which legislators might wind up running for a federal seat in California soon, one seasoned Golden State Democratic operative replied: “Everyone.”

But there is a paradox: In the last round of Congressional redistricting, state leaders in California drew all 53 House districts to benefit incumbents, making it difficult for challengers — even those who were powerhouses in Sacramento — to run competitive races.

But even if the districts aren’t competitive, Father Time may help create some vacancies, especially on the Democratic side. Rep. Tom Lantos is 75 years old. Rep. Pete Stark is 72. Rep. Diane Watson is 70. Fourteen other Democratic members of the California delegation are in their 60s. Of course, the two members of the delegation who are retiring this cycle are among the youngest: Rep. Doug Ose (R), 48, and Rep. Cal Dooley (D), 49.

The elections of 2006 could also help create a few House vacancies. The entire roster of statewide offices is up that year, including new Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Most of the other statewide officials are term-limited, and their jobs might be attractive to Members interested in working closer to home.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) is also up for re-election in 2006. She is expected to run again, but she will be 73 then, so anything is possible.

Just about every statewide elected official — and they’re all Democrats, other than Schwarzenegger — will take a look at running for governor, led by Treasurer Phil Angelides and Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Those who don’t run for governor could end up running for Senate if Feinstein retires. Rep. Jane Harman (D) is also mentioned as a possible Senate contender in 2006.

Despite the jokes about every state legislator now thinking about running for Congress, there are at least a few Democrats who can definitely be considered possible candidates for the House in the not-too-distant future. And, California being California, the list of contenders includes at least one celebrity. There is speculation that politically active actor Rob Lowe, who lives in Santa Barbara, could run for the House whenever 65-year-old Rep. Lois Capps (D) retires.

“He may be out of options,” one wag said of the actor, whose career hasn’t been the same since he left the cast of “The West Wing.”

Working, roughly, from north to south, other possibilities include:

For 66-year-old Rep. Lynn Woolsey’s (D) northern Bay-area seat: Joe Nation (D), chairman of the Assembly’s Rules Committee, who declined an opportunity to run for state Senate in 2004.

For 62-year-old Rep. Robert Matsui’s (D) Sacramento-area seat: Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D), a former Sacramento City Councilman who is running for the state Senate.

For Rep. George Miller’s (D) northeastern Bay-area seat: Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D), a budget conciliator.

For 63-year-old Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D) San Francisco district: Attorney Kim Burton, heir to the city’s powerful political family; newly elected San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris (D); and Assemblyman Mark Leno (D). Incoming San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (D) could also run for Congress or higher office.

For Lantos’ San Francisco-area seat: San Mateo County Supervisor Jerry Hill (D) and state Sen. Jackie Speier (D). Speier, 53, has an interesting story to tell. She was an aide to the late Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.) and was shot and wounded at the Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1978 when Ryan was killed. She ran unsuccessfully in the special election to replace him, but has remained politically active and may run for lieutenant governor in 2006.

For Stark’s East Bay district: Jonah Klehs, a former member of the Board of Equalization who is running for his old Assembly seat next year.

For 62-year-old Rep. Mike Honda’s (D) San Jose-area seat: termed-limited Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn (D).

For Farr’s Central Coast district: former Assemblyman Fred Keely (D), who was Farr’s chief of staff when the Congressman was in the Legislature.

In Dooley’s Central Valley district, where his former chief of staff, Lisa Quigley, and former state Sen. Jim Costa are competing in the Democratic primary to replace him: state Sen. Dean Florez (D), who may run for state treasurer in 2006, and Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D).

For 62-year-old Rep. Howard Berman’s (D) San Fernando Valley seat in a district that is majority Hispanic: Los Angeles Councilman Tony Cardenas and Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez (D), who is not yet 30.

For Rep. Xavier Becerra’s (D) Los Angeles district: Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa is mentioned. Villaraigosa, a former Assembly Speaker who came within a hair of being elected mayor of Los Angeles in 2001, and Becerra, who also ran for mayor that year, were once close allies. But no longer. Villaraigosa, who may run for mayor again, came close to challenging Becerra in 2002.

For Watson’s western Los Angeles seat: state Sen. Kevin Murray (D), an ally of Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-Calif.) who was runner-up to Watson in a 2001 special primary.

For 62-year-old Rep. Lucille Roybal- Allard’s Los Angeles-area district: Pedro Carrera, longtime director of Roybal- Allard’s district office, and Assemblyman Fabian Nuñez (D), who is slated to become the next Assembly Speaker.

For Harman’s district along the Los Angeles County beaches: state Sen. Deborah Bowen (D), who was encouraged to run for Harman’s seat — and declined — when Harman ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998.

For 66-year-old Rep. Grace Napolitano’s (D) seat in eastern Los Angeles County: Assemblyman Ron Calderon (D).

For 65-year-old Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald’s (D) district in southern Los Angeles County: Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza (D), who just dropped out of the race for Assembly Speaker.

For the San Diego-area seat of 61-year-old Rep. Bob Filner (D): Assemblyman Juan Vargas, a former deputy mayor of San Diego.

For the San Diego-area seat now held by Rep. Susan Davis (D): former Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe (D), who narrowly lost a House race to then-Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) in 1998 and is currently running for state Senate.

Correction. The Dec. 8 edition of Down on the Farm incorrectly reported the Congressional district that Fresno Mayor Alan Autry lives in. He is in Rep. George Radanovich’s (R-Calif.) district.