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Harman’s Departure Tees Up First Special

Rep. Jane Harman’s sudden resignation Monday sets up her coastal Los Angeles-area district to host the first special election of the 2012 cycle.

It took only a few hours for bold-named Democrats to emerge as potential candidates for the 36th district once news broke Monday morning of Harman’s decision to leave Congress to run the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The California Democrat’s move won’t be official until today, but already members of both parties were setting expectations.

“The opportunity for someone to run for a Congressional seat in California is huge because they don’t come up very often,” said Matt Klink, president of the California-based political consulting firm Cerrell Associates.

A torrent of spending is expected in a multicandidate field that will be the first Congressional race under the state’s new top-two primary format. The top two finishers in the all-party primary would advance to the special general election, unless one candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote. The timing isn’t set, but the election most likely will take place before summer begins.

In Los Angeles, City Councilwoman Janice Hahn announced Monday afternoon that she is running for the seat, ensuring a top-tier Democrat would enter the race.

It’s the second time Hahn has run for Harman’s seat, including an unsuccessful bid in 1998 when Harman ran for governor. Harman served from 1992 to 1998, then was re-elected in 2000 after a two-year hiatus.

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen (D) is strongly considering a bid as well. Her candidacy would set up a high-profile special election, with more candidates possibly on the way.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what other names come out of woodwork in the next 36 hours,” Klink said.

According to the secretary of state’s office, the governor must call a special election within 14 days from the date the office is vacated — the exact date of which is still unclear. The special would then be held at least 112 days but no more than 126 days from the date the governor calls the special.

There is one caveat, however: If the special can be consolidated with another election, it can be held up to 180 days from when the governor calls it. There are currently no elections being held in that time period, though it is possible Gov. Jerry Brown could call for a special election to extend the state’s tax increases on the second Tuesday in June.

Harman’s district has been solidly Democratic since the 2002 redistricting, with Harman never winning less than 60 percent of the vote and President Barack Obama carrying it with 64 percent in 2008.

With redistricting later this year, the makeup will likely alter again. The state’s independent commission is expected to release district lines by September.

Republicans are hoping this district reverts back to its more competitive nature from the 1990s, but Los Angeles County GOP Chairwoman Jane Barnett said the district is a pickup opportunity now despite its Democratic lean.

“We are very excited about the fact that Jane Harman is retiring,” Barnett said. “I think it’s a seat we can take with the right person. Special elections are usually good for us.”

One possible Republican candidate is businessman Damon Dunn, who was heavily supported by the local party in his bid for secretary of state last year.

Dunn graduated from Stanford University, where he played football and recorded one reception for the Cleveland Browns in the National Football League. If he and Bowen run, it would be their second matchup in just a few months, after she defeated Dunn by 15 points statewide in November.

Hahn will begin the race with especially high name recognition and the ability to fundraise. Klink called the Hahn name the “gold standard in Southern California,” though she was unsuccessful in her bid for lieutenant governor last year.

Her late father, Kenneth Hahn, served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for 40 years and was instrumental in bringing the Dodgers baseball team to LA from Brooklyn. Her brother, James Hahn, is a former LA city attorney and served a term as mayor from 2001 to 2005.

“As someone who has served in local government for almost a decade, I want to bring that perspective and experience to Congress,” Janice Hahn said in a statement.

Two local Democrats took their names out of the running Monday. Former Assemblyman Ted Lieu, who is running in Tuesday’s special primary election for the vacant 28th state Senate district, announced he would not seek the seat. A spokeswoman for Assemblyman Warren Furutani, who represents southern Los Angeles, also said he would not run.

Speculation about potential candidates quickly led to Lieu, who failed in his bid for attorney general last year. The 28th district includes much of the Harman’s Congressional district.

Harman told her constituents that it wasn’t easy to leave Congress.

“This is an excruciating decision because the distinction of representing the smartest constituents on earth will never be surpassed — nor will my relationships with my exceptional staff and colleagues in Congress,” she wrote in a letter obtained by Roll Call.

Reaction on Capitol Hill was quiet Monday, as aides and Members waited for the Woodrow Wilson Center to officially announce Harman as its new president. But behind the scenes, aides hailed Harman’s prominent role on national security issues and said her presence on that issue, where Democrats have lacked a strong spokesman, will be missed.

“Harman is respected as somebody who knows these issues and does her homework,” one former Democratic aide said, noting there is no heir apparent to fill that role in quite the same way.

“The feeling is that you can always put Jane Harman out there on the Sunday shows and she will talk in a way that can reassure swing voters and Americans that they are listening to someone who knows what she’s talking about.”

Harman’s spot on the Energy and Commerce Committee is one that aides said Monday has already caught the attention of some Members, particularly since Democrats had to cut eight Members from the influential panel after losing the majority.

Harman, the third-wealthiest Member of Congress with a net worth of more than $152 million, also serves on the Homeland Security Committee and as the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence; Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) serves just below her in seniority on that subpanel.

But the largest political implications will be felt on the coastline between Venice and Redondo beaches during the special election. Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, summed it up: “It’s going to be a free-for-all for that seat.”

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