The promise of voter-approved reforms

San Francisco Chronicle, 9/25/11.

by John Diaz

In ordinary times, a young city councilman with an ounce of sense or ambition would not dare challenge a member of Congress from his own party, even if the incumbent was routinely rated as one of the worst lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In ordinary times, the Service Employees International Union would not bother to try to influence a legislative election in a Republican area. And in ordinary times, three wealthy Californians who are frustrated with Sacramento gridlock would not think about investing their time and money in finding a few good men and women who can make a difference in the California Legislature.

In the past, when election results were preordained by politician-drawn districts, such causes were hopeless. But this year’s arrival of citizen-crafted redistricting and an open primary already has reshaped the assumption of what is possible in California politics.

For a sense of how those two voter-passed reforms have blown up the status quo, look no further than Dublin City Councilman Eric Swalwell’s announcement last week that he will challenge fellow Democrat Rep. Pete Stark in the newly realigned 15th Congressional District.

Stark, who turns 80 in November, has not faced serious opposition since his election in 1972. Over the years, his stature in the House and his connection with the East Bay have diminished considerably. Stark even tried to claim his suburban Maryland home, where he lives with his wife and his two school-age children, as his primary residence for tax purposes.

Stark, a once-influential voice on banking issues and longest-serving member of Congress from California, now shows up on the national radar only for his periodic buffoonery. Swalwell won’t have to spend much on opposition research; Stark’s embarrassments are richly documented. He called a male colleague “a fruitcake,” a female colleague a “whore for the insurance industry,” an African American Cabinet member “a disgrace to his race” – and suggested that Republicans were sending troops to Iraq “to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.”

Esquire magazine, which put him on its 10 Worst Members of Congress list, called Stark “a dumb liberal who thinks he owns his seat.” It noted that Stark was pointedly passed over for the chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee “in a House where seniority means everything.”

In ordinary times, Stark could count on his pals in Sacramento to carve him a secure Democratic district – and his re-election would be settled in the primary.

Rules of the game have changed for 2012.

Stark now must run in the 15th District, where just 49 percent of the voters are Democrats, and the rest are divided between Republicans and decline-to-states. His district no longer includes the Democratic strongholds of Alameda and much of Fremont – and reaches across the hills into the more conservative Tri-Valley.

Enter Swalwell, a 30-year-old Alameda County district attorney who is eager to appeal to the centrist sensibilities of the suburban voters who may be put off by Stark’s stridency.

“I’m a law-and-order Democrat who isn’t afraid to talk to the business community,” Swalwell said, describing himself in the bridge-building mold of the Tri-Valley’s previous representatives in the U.S. House, Jerry McNerney and Ellen Tauscher.

It’s always a tall order to unseat a congressional incumbent – even one with Stark’s oversize baggage – but the fact that an elected official is willing to even try is a measure of the new political order in California.

So is the recent decision of the SEIU, one of the state’s largest and most powerful labor unions, to create a new political action committee designed to boost Republicans who might be willing to break from antitax orthodoxy. Until now, SEIU has concentrated its resources on electing Democrats. But SEIU recognized that the combination of independent redistricting and the open primary could lead to opportunities for centrist Republicans – a possibility it wants to promote.

Perhaps the most promising and consequential vote of confidence in the effect of these reforms to date is the creation of Govern for California by well-heeled investors Ron Conway (a Republican), David Crane (a Democrat) and Greg Penner (decline to state). They have pledged to put their own dollars, and solicit the help of others, on behalf of candidates from either party who demonstrate the intelligence, integrity and independence to make a difference in Sacramento.

“We’re looking to throw some money at courageous candidates,” Crane said in an interview last week. “And I think the scarcer resource is going to be the latter.”

Crane has equal disgust for the Democratic and Republican double-talk. He noted that the same Democrats who complain about the cuts to higher education and the safety net just voted for a generous new compensation package for prison guards. He noted that Republicans who talk about burdens on California businesses recently voted to preserve a tax system that works against companies that keep their employees and operations in the state.

The three investors also have concluded that putting money into state legislative races is going to provide a far bigger bang for the buck than donating to national campaigns.

“The election of a state senator from Bakersfield will have more impact on everyday Californians’ lives,” Crane said.

As Crane so rightly pointed out, the current Legislature is consumed with excuses. Democrats blame the Republicans for obstructionism; Republicans blame the Democrats for dealing in bad faith (latest example: Democrats just jammed through a bill to delay a statewide vote on a budget reform package until November 2014, a blatant breach of a budget-closing deal with GOP leaders to put the matter to voters in June 2012). Everyone blames the system, especially the initiative process, but there is nothing to keep legislators from containing runaway pension costs, overhauling the 1970s-era determinate sentencing laws that are overwhelming prisons – or just saying no to lavish prison-guard contracts.

“If we had even five Abraham Lincolns in the California Legislature, we could solve all the problems that beset us,” Crane said.

A lofty goal, indeed. There is a common thread in the ambitions of Eric Swalwell, SEIU and Govern for California: None would have been possible before these voter-approved reforms upended the status quo and allowed for the possibility of real competition at the ballot box.

How elections will change (for the better) in 2012


Old way: The California Legislature drew the boundaries for congressional and state legislative seats after the 2000 census.

New way: A citizens commission drew the lines, with a goal of keeping communities together without regard to the effect on parties or individual legislators.

Upshot: Various incumbents suddenly found themselves grouped in the same district. The prospect for competitive races expanded greatly.


Old way: Voters of each party would choose their candidates for legislative and congressional races. In districts with a clear registration edge for one party, the election is essentially settled in the primary.

New way: Voters are allowed to choose among candidates of all parties. The top two finishers (regardless of party) then face each other in the general election.

Upshot: Candidates are going to be forced to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters.

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