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Rookie lawmakers in Capitol surge

Assembly chamber Sacramento, California. State Capitol. California Assembly chamber. Photo: David Monniaux

Over the last year, an unprecedented class of freshmen legislators has been wading in the waters of California’s new governing rules.

“Most freshmen classes, Republicans and Democrats, come in with great ideas on how they’re going to change the institution, but ultimately the institution changes them,” said Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, the chairman of the California Republican Party who served as his party leader in both houses of the Legislature.

With 41 newbies – 39 chosen in regular elections and two in special elections — it is the largest batch of first-term lawmakers at least since California voters approved a full-time Legislature in 1966.

The timing for change, however, appears opportune.

“They happen to be coming in at a time after a lot of reforms have been passed,” Phillip Ung of Common Cause said. “A lot of the dysfunction in Sacramento has already been excised by the public.”

With 41 newbies – 39 chosen in regular elections and two in special elections — it is the largest batch of first-term lawmakers at least since California voters approved a full-time Legislature in 1966. The new lawmakers were voted into office under new term limits and election policies. Also new: supermajorities of Democrats in both houses.

“I think with the 12-year terms, the relationships we’ll be able to build will help us in developing better policy,” said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael. “That’s my hope at least, because we’ll be able to look at policy goals rather than the short-term goals driven by the election cycle and the term limits.”

Dan Schnur

Dan Schnur

Voters in the 2010 election approved Proposition 14, implementing a “top two” primary system, in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, face each other in the general election. Proponents of election reform believe this system encourages more moderate politicians, because candidates now need to appeal to a broader constituency.

“That’s the conventional wisdom, but I don’t know that I buy it now any more than I did previously,” said Dan Schnur, a veteran political communications consultant and now head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of California. “The value of the top-two primary isn’t necessarily to simply encourage moderate candidates, it’s also extremely valuable to conservatives and liberals who look for opportunities to work across party lines.”

He noted that “all but the most doctrinaire ideologues in both parties invariably have something on which they agree with members of the other party. These rule changes allow them to take advantage of the opportunities without fearing a backlash from their party’s base.”

Last year, voters approved a law allowing elected state officials to spend up to 12-year terms in either house. Previously they were limited to six years – three two-year tems — in the Assembly and eight – two four-year terms — in the Senate.

The jury is still out on the quest for moderate politicians.

“It is right to say that this was an intention of the reformers, too early to say if it was true,” said Paul Mitchell, a vice president of Political Data, Inc., which provides voter information to political campaigns.

“Our analysis shows that the open primary has resulted in very little cross-over voting.  In primaries, partisans are largely voting within their own silos, even when their vote may be more rationally given to the more moderate member of the other party,” he noted. “Looking at the moderate Democrats, nearly all of them won in traditional runoffs against a Republican — essentially a pre-reform General Election.  And where the races were Democrat vs Democrat or Rep v Rep it often wasn’t about fighting for the moderate middle – we saw campaigns that pitted the local person vs Sacramento or nasty races about personality or negative campaigns.

The new system was also supposed to empower independents, but their turnout was lower in the primary and 37 independent candidates ran, zero won.  The open primary may bear fruit, but it hasn’t yet.

Moderate politicians also will be in their respective house longer, under the revised term-limits formula.

Last year, voters approved a law allowing elected state officials to spend up to 12-year terms in either house. Previously they were limited to six years – three two-year tems — in the Assembly and eight – two four-year terms — in the Senate.

Jim Brulte

Jim Brulte

Levine was elected to the state Legislature last fall under these new rules last fall, he now heads the Select Committee on Agriculture and the Environment. As a group, freshmen in the Assembly hold chair posts on 18 of the 41 select committees and 9 of the 30 standing committees.

Like the baby boomer generation, Brulte said these new members make up such a large portion of the Legislature they have the ability to make significant changes in how California is governed.

“This freshmen class is so big, on both sides of the aisle, that it has the ability to change the institution,” Brulte said. “But it will take a while to see.”

Up to this point, Ung said the group of newbies has performed well in terms of grasping the complexity of campaign finance regulation and the importance of transparency, but they also spent a lot of time raising money.

Ung’s group, Common Cause, is a non-profit that advocates on behalf of political disclosure and good government. The group is still reviewing quarterly reports on just how much money the first-year legislators raised, but Ung says when it comes to fundraising for their campaigns this class may have done more than previous classes.

For Assemblyman Levine, the Capitol’s impact on local government was the main reason he decided to run for a state office.

“The amount of fundraising they have participated in may be a symptom or consequence of some of the reforms,” said Ung. “The reforms have made… elections more competitive. Competitive districts appeal to voters. It gives them a real choice in candidates, but it also makes races very expensive because people are running against members of their own party.”

The freshmen need to find a balance between looking out for money and their constituents, Ung said. For Assemblyman Levine, the Capitol’s impact on local government was the main reason he decided to run for a state office.

“During the past years it really felt as though that Sacramento was looking out for making work easier for the Legislature, rather than being locally serving,” Levine said. “Coming from a city council, it’s really important to me to restore the relationship between state and local government. The other goal I had was to change the tone and culture in Sacramento … to break the rigidity we have in the policy making.”

More time in the Capitol and more moderate politicians are considered to be a remedy for stronger relationships among state officials — from either party — even though this concept has become a pipedream in today’s national political climate.

“Legacy, in many cases, is the relationships you’re going to build. And you can have friendships on both sides of the aisle,” Brulte said. “In fact, you’ll learn a lot more by getting to know people on the other side of the aisle then you will on your own. People on your side of the aisle, they won’t challenge you.“

There’s more than term-limits and top two in the equation – there’s redistricting reform, Schnur noted.

Together, they “add up to more than the individual parts,” he said.

 

 


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