California saw plenty of change to its congressional delegation last year, with the long-serving likes of Fortney “Pete” Stark (East Bay area), David Dreier (San Dimas), Jerry Lewis (Redlands), Joe Baca (San Bernardino County), Elton Gallegly (Simi Valley), Mary Bono Mack (Palm Springs) and more either retiring or getting turned out.
For most of their veteran colleagues remaining, re-election seems all but certain. Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the House and current Democratic minority leader, hasn’t had a serious challenger since essentially inheriting her San Francisco-based seat in 1987 on the death of Sala Burton, who had taken it over from her husband, Phil Burton, a liberal lion and legendary master of gerrymandering.
But Pelosi is 73 and her age probably will see her out of Congress before another decade goes by.
In that way, Pelosi is pretty typical of the state’s 53-member delegation, replete with sexagenarians and septuagenarians.
Just look at the solidly Democratic districts stretching hundreds of miles south from Pelosi’s turf: Jackie Speier, 63, of San Mateo; Anna Eshoo, 70, of Palo Alto; Zoe Lofgren, 65, whose district reaches from San Jose to Gilroy; Mike Honda, 71, of San Jose, Sam Farr, 71, of Monterey County; and Lois Capps, 75, of Santa Barbara County.
Of that aging group, only Capps had a serious challenge last year, but still pretty easily fended off Republican Abel Maldonado, the former appointive lieutenant governor.
Any of them could draw a challenge at any time, as did Stark, a 40-year congressional veteran from Alameda County who at 80 was the dean of California’s delegation until he was surprised by a primary challenge from 31-year-old Eric Swalwell, a Dublin City Councilman who 10 years earlier was an intern for former Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher. Swalwell won the all-Democrat November runoff by a narrow 52-48 percent margin.
Already, Honda is being challenged by a former deputy national trade representative, Rho Khanna, 37, who drew a crowd of major Silicon Valley players to one recent $2,600-per-person fundraiser.
No one can be sure what other upstarts may be lurking in the weeds to take on senior-citizen incumbents south of Pelosi or elsewhere, like Doris Matsui of Sacramento, 68; Howard (Buck) McKeon, a 74-year-old Santa Clarita Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee; San Diego Democrat Susan Davis, 69; 73-year-old Henry Waxman of West Los Angeles and the South Bay suburbs; or 68-year-old former Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who won by only about 8 percent last year over a previously obscure Republican challenger.
One thing all these folks should have learned last year is that the state’s three-year-old top-two primary election system makes seats that once could be considered safe for decades quite a bit shakier.
Stark, for example, most likely would still be in Congress, but for that system, which puts the top two finishers in the primary election into the November runoff election, regardless of party. No Republican could have beaten him in his district, but a fellow Democrat did.
If that didn’t put other incumbents on notice, what happened to Baca surely did. He also lost to a fellow Democrat, Gloria Negrete McLeod of Chino, herself 71.
That race illustrated that state legislators subject to term limits won’t always be content to leave office and retire or look for a real-world job when they are termed out: Some will try for Congress. Which means few in Congress can be sanguine, almost all having to look over their shoulders as long as they serve.
Which means the still-pretty-new primary system is achieving one unanticipated benefit: It is keeping incumbent politicians on their toes more than they ever before needed to be. It’s too soon, of course, to know whether than means they’ll accomplish more than previously.
Chances are congressional shakeups won’t be as striking in any one election year over the next decade as they were last year, when top-two’s debut combined with newly drawn district lines to create unprecedented instability and 14 new members of Congress.
But Democrats already are eyeing the districts of Republican Congressmen Jeff Denham of Modesto and Gary Miller of Rancho Cucamonga.
“The party apparatus will begin to focus on these races in earnest very shortly,” said Eric Bauman, the Democrats’ state vice chairman.
But the most change is likely to come from districts already occupied by Democratic veterans, none of whom has voiced any intentions of stepping down. Not to worry, when they do, plenty of younger folks will be waiting to replace them.
And if the old-timers don’t get out of the way on their own, at least some of those ambitious potential replacements are sure not to simply wait their turns, but — like Swalwell — pounce on their own where they see an opening.
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org