When members of Congress seek county office instead

Rep. Paul Cook cites broader powers of California supervisors, but GOP’s minority status also a factor

California Rep. Paul Cook announced Tuesday that he is retiring from Congress to run for county office. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
California Rep. Paul Cook announced Tuesday that he is retiring from Congress to run for county office. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 19, 2019 at 5:30am

California Republican Paul Cook’s decision to run for county office next year rather than a fifth House term might have raised a few eyebrows, especially since more than five dozen of his colleagues have used county positions as stepping stones to Washington.

But what seems like a downward move is not unheard of, particularly in California, where county supervisors wield a fair amount of power. Influencing local policy can also be more appealing than a weekly cross-country commute, especially when working in the nation’s capital means governing in the minority.

Cook, 76, said serving in the minority contributed to his decision to retire from Congress and run instead for an open seat on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, but it wasn’t a decisive factor.

“I think I can do more right now back home,” he said in Wednesday interview in the Speaker’s Lobby.

A better option? 

According to CQ member data, 69 members of the House, including seven from California, have experience as county officials.

Yet for those looking to retire from the House but continue in public service, countywide office in California isn’t a significant step down.

“Our county governments are extremely powerful,” said Richard Temple, a California GOP consultant. A county supervisor can represent a population comparable to a congressional district, he said.

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In San Bernardino County, the five-member Board of Supervisors represents an overall population of nearly 2.2 million, meaning each district includes roughly 440,000 people. At the congressional level, Cook’s 8th District is home to about 721,000.

“I think I could still make a difference there,” Cook said. “We have five members that are making huge decisions instead of 435, where you have to have a consensus on certain things in an environment that is prone to discord.”

The nonpartisan supervisors have legislative, executive and “quasi-judicial” powers, according to the California State Association of Counties, approving budgets and conducting oversight over departments and employees.

Cook is not the first to prefer a county post to federal office. In 2016, California Democrat Janice Hahn opted to step down from the House to run for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, where she still serves today. That same year, Michigan GOP Rep. Candice S. Miller left Congress for a successful run for Macomb County public works commissioner.

In 2014, two California Democrats with experience in Congress ran for county supervisor positions, with mixed results. Freshman Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod lost a race for the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, while former Rep. Hilda L. Solis, who stepped down as President Barack Obama’s Labor secretary, won a bid for supervisor in Los Angeles County. 

While Cook said he could get more done at the county level, he also said upcoming knee surgery, which would render him unable to travel back to D.C. for votes, affected his decision. 

“I’m still going to be able to get around,” he said, when asked if surgery would keep him from county duties. “I’m just not going to be wedged in a plane.”

Political environment

Of the more than a dozen Republicans leaving the House this cycle, most, like Cook, are experiencing their first year in the minority party. The exodus has raised questions about whether GOP lawmakers are pessimistic about their prospects for taking back the House in 2020. 

Cook said his surgery, gridlock in Congress and the opportunity to spend more time with his family were more important than his party’s minority status in reaching his decision. He noted that he served in the minority in the California state Assembly and knows how to work with Democrats. 

Republicans have been struggling in California, however, with seven GOP lawmakers losing House seats in 2018.

GOP operatives were not concerned about defending Cook’s 8th District, which President Donald Trump carried by 15 points in 2016 and Cook won with 60 percent of the vote last year.

But Democrat Chris Bubser, a former marketing and advertising executive who had been preparing to run against Cook, raised nearly $205,000 to the incumbent’s $139,000 in the most recent fundraising quarter.

“What the GOP doesn’t realize is how rapidly this district is changing — and not in their favor,” she said. “There are redder districts that flipped in the last cycle.”

A Bubser campaign memo from August noted that Republicans only have a 3-point party registration advantage, compared to an 11-point advantage in 2012. The campaign also noted that the district is diversifying, and in 2016 more than a quarter of 8th District voters were people of color.

Cook’s chief of staff, John Sobel, pushed back on Bubser’s claim that his boss retired because he faced a competitive race, saying the Democrat had “tremendous vulnerabilities.”

“I was extremely confident that Paul was going to win a fifth term, so that did not have anything to do with it,” Sobel said.

California GOP Assemblyman Jay Obernolte is already running for Cook’s seat, with the congressman’s endorsement, and more Republican candidates could jump into the race. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 8th District contest Solid Republican.

George LeVines contributed to this report.