Local Politics

Monday, Nov 19 2012 12:00 PM

Analysis: California delegation gains new blood, loses experience

BY MICHELLE MURPHY AND PAMELA NONGA California News Service

WASHINGTON -- California's new voting rules contributed to the election of 14 new faces to Congress, but at the cost of nearly 300 years of congressional experience.

The new members -- 11 Democrats and three Republicans -- include a prosecutor, a consumer attorney, a retired Marine Corp colonel, a high school teacher and two farmers -- one of whom will represent parts of Kern County.

The influx of new members -- the largest the state has experienced in 20 years -- was among the chief aims of those who pushed for the top-two primary system and an independent commission to redraw congressional districts.

The reforms have drawn praise in Washington for shaking incumbents' hold on power, some referring to California as a "laboratory for democracy." However, the delegation shakeup could weaken California's clout in the Capitol, where members of Congress from other states will move up the seniority ladder.

California will remain the House's largest and the most influential delegation. But it is giving up two committee chairs, several subcommittee chairs, and is losing the most senior member of each party.

Representative Pete Stark, D-Fremont, was first elected in 1972, the same year President Richard Nixon won re-election. Six of the 14 members who will not be returning in January served during Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Among the members leaving:

* Republican David Drier is retiring after 16 terms. He is chair of the Rules Committee as well as the California Republican Congressional Delegation.

* Democrat Howard Berman was defeated by fellow Democrat Brad Sherman, after serving 15 terms. He is the highest-ranking Democratic member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

* Democrat Pete Stark was also defeated by a fellow Democrat after serving 20 terms. He is the senior Democrat on the House committee that oversees Medicare and Medicaid.

* Republican Jerry Lewis, the former chair of the House Appropriations Committee, is retiring after 17 terms.

The new members have no congressional experience but they are not novices in the world of politics. Five members have served as state assemblymen and four as state senators. They share 72 combined years of experience in the state legislature.

That includes now-30th District Assemblyman David Valadao, R-Hanford and a dairy farmer. He soundly beat Democrat John Hernandez, CEO of the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, to represent the new 21st Congressional District, which includes northwest Kern County plus Arvin, Lamont and part of east Bakersfield.

New district boundaries were drawn up following the 2010 census by the voter-approved California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which was under explicit orders not to consider how the boundaries would affect incumbents.

Moreover, a new primary system that places the top two qualifiers on the general election ballot, regardless of party affiliations, created the opportunity for changes to the state's delegation.

Of the 530 congressional elections held over the past 10 years, only two incumbents seeking re-election lost their seats. Five incumbents lost on Nov. 6.

Among the causalities was Berman, who found himself in the same district as fellow Democrat Sherman. The race was among the most expensive in the nation with more than $13 million spent. Berman leaves Washington, where he arrived in 1983 and served two years as chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

In the Bay Area, 32-year-old Dublin City Council member Eric Swalwell defeated Stark, California's longest-serving member, under the new rule that requires the top two candidates in any primary to face each other in November, even if they are from the same party. Prior to this year, Stark had won 10 consecutive elections with more than 60 percent of the vote.

California's 53-member delegation remains by far the nation's largest. It is only the second time since the state joined the union that it has not gained congressional seats after a census.

With an overwhelming majority of Democrats -- the delegation will be comprised of 38 Democrats and 15 Republicans -- California's clout is dependent on which party controls the House.

"The state has more Democratic members now, but until the Democrats retain the majority, their ability to do much will be greatly limited by their minority party status,'' said John Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College.

"It's more evolution than revolution,'' Pitney said of the high turnover. "If there had been a change in party control, things would be changing more fundamentally."

The California News Service is a journalism project of the University of California Washington Center and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Email the California News Service at cns@ucdc.edu.

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