Recruiting candidates getting tougher, experts say

Both parties in both houses of the California Legislature are on the prowl for good political candidates. But recruitment is difficult.

Local politicians who once lined up to get a shot at a Senate or Assembly seat are now taking a long, second look. In some counties, local political jobs – once a stepping stone to the Legislature – are better, sometimes much better, than the Legislature in pay, longevity, power, stress level, public profile and the ability to get things done. The Legislature’s public approval ratings are at historic lows. Why head into the eye of the storm?

“People may be scared to go up there. They see partisanship, they see dysfunction. They run for the Senate or Assembly, they get up there, and then they are torn a hundred different ways. They are not allowed to vote for good public policy because the heads of the caucuses want them to vote on something else, and if you don’t go along with them, they threaten to run people against them,” said Don Knabe, chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which has jurisdiction over the most populated county in the nation and controls a budget larger than 43 states.

The path from Sacramento is not a one-way street. Term limits in some counties are kicking in, forcing incumbents to seek new offices and some are looking at the state Legislature or Congress. But the Legislature, at least, is not the attractive political choice it once was.

“You put together the public scrutiny, the impact on a family, the fact that there are no pension benefits, the reduction in salary – you add all these up and it’s not a job that many would want to put themselves or their families through for 14 years,” said Steven Maviglio, a Democratic political strategist.

Republican recruiting is even tougher, in part because of the GOP’s role, nearly institutionalized in the Capitol, as a political minority.

“For Republicans, it’s always a challenge to recruit candidates. Republicans generally are more interested in the private sector than being in government, and that’s a historic challenge. Republicans are in a minority here,” said consultant Kevin Spillane, who is heading up recruitment for Assembly Republicans, “but if they’re on a (local) board, even if they are one in five, they have major influence over what is going on at the county board or a local government operation.”

Jon Edney, a Republican, is a member of the El Centro City Council and a major player in the Southern California Association of Governments.  He is a businessman – he runs a real estate company – and he was courted, hard, to run for the Assembly. In the end, he decided against it, as did an attorney in his area, a Democrat, who also was pressed to run.

“This simply boils down to the most important reason: the system we’ve created in Sacramento does not allow for one to go up there with his own ideals and being a force to work for the common good. We have a system that is completely about how much money you can raise. The question is, ‘How much control of your thoughts are you going to give to every special interest group that controls Sacramento?” Edney said.

“An Assembly seat costs somewhere between $1.5 million and $3 million. It’s a two-year job, and you have to start running again in 12 months. Where do you get the money? You get it from lobbyists and interest groups. And nobody gives you a check for $50,000 or $100,000 who figures they don’t own you,” he added

There are powerful local jobs for the politically connected. Port authority jobs in San Diego, Long Beach, Los Angeles and San Francisco are prime examples, and so are the clerks, controllers, assessors, treasurers, election officers, transportation boards, administrative jobs, and others in the counties and cities. There are local popularly elected jobs on city councils or boards of supervisors or county government that eclipse the California Legislature.

In Orange County, for example, supervisors receive about $145,000 a year, plus benefits, on a salary scale that is pegged to 80 percent of the pay of Superior Court judges.

In Los Angeles, arguably the most powerful board of supervisors in the United States, the members receive some $215,000 a year, plus staffing and benefits, and control a budget larger than all but seven states.
That dwarfs the pay of state legislators.

Effective Dec. 9, rank-and-file lawmakers will earn $95,291 annually, less than half of the  pay of the members of the L.A. supervisors, three of whose members once served in the Legislature.

In the 15-member L.A. City Council, four members are former state lawmakers – one is former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson Jr. – and another Assemblyman, Paul Krekorian, is a potential member: He won a Sept. 22 special election and faces a Dec. 8 runoff for the council’s 2nd District. Council pay is about $175,000 a year, more than $40,000 less than the L.A. board of supervisors but far higher than state legislators.

The Orange County board includes Patricia Bates and Bill Campbell, both former state lawmakers. One member, Chris Norby, is termed and is running for an Assembly seat. A former member, Lou Correa, a Santa Ana Democrat, served on the board but was successfully recruited by former Senate Leader Don Perata.

At the local level, a supervisor is one of five, a major political player regardless of party affiliations. In Sacramento, he or she is one of 80 in the Assembly or one in 40 in the Senate. In Sacramento, the power pie is sliced increasingly thin.

Despite the downsides, there has not been a dearth of candidates, says Kathy Bowler, the former executive director of the California Democratic Party and now a Sacramento-based political consultant who helps the party find candidates.

“They want to perform public service, and they want to make a difference,” Bowler said. “There really are a lot of people who want to go into public service and want to be part of the solution. Term limits are a problem, but it (running for office) is not so much about a career as it is making a difference.”

Those who haven’t decided whether to run may be pushed  by circumstance, such as the unexpected Assembly vacancy created by the forced resignation of Assemblyman Mike Duvall, R-Yorba Linda, who was overheard on a Capitol microphone boasting of his sexual exploits.  

“It’s an individual thing. In politics, it’s all about timing,” said Sacramento strategist Andrew Acosta of the Acosta-Salazar political consulting firm. Potential candidates may feel settled, not anxious to make a move – and then circumstance may force a decision.
“If a Mike Duvall gets caught with his pants down, then it’s time to move,” he said.

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