As Super Tuesday dawns in the state with the greatest trove of convention delegates, members of California’s Democratic congressional delegation face an uncomfortable choice in backing Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Some have decided that making no endorsement at all is the better part of wisdom.
"I just didn't see any reason, if my district is evenly divided between the candidates, for making half of my Democratic supporters mad at me," said Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, who has already cast his absentee ballot but will keep his vote private for now. "So I just thought that I would wait until Tuesday and see if there was a clear winner then."
The topic is so sensitive that the question alone sends congressional aides running for cover, particularly those who work for freshmen facing tough or even possibly tough reelection bids in 2008. A spokesman for Tracy Rep. Jerry McNerney said the congressman, who unseated seven-term Republican incumbent Richard Pombo in 2006, has not expressed a preference for any presidential candidate and has no plans to do so. With registered Republicans outnumbering Democrats in the district 42 percent to 38 percent, McNerney is already walking a tightrope for reelection without choosing sides in the primary, a move that would also remind his constituents that he is in fact a Democrat.
McNerney is in good company. Of the 41 Democrats elected to their first House terms in 2006, 23 have thus far remained neutral. "They haven't figured out who's the most likely winner," said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. "And they want to be on the side of the winner."
As Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi is officially above the fray, although her close ally Rep. George Miller of Martinez has endorsed Obama, a move widely regarded as a signal about where the Speaker’s sentiment lies. Rep. Mike Honda of San Jose, the vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also is neutral. Senators are even more cautious. Twenty-seven of the Senate’s 49 Democrats have yet to make an endorsement, California Sen. Barbara Boxer included. Boxer, who announced a year ago that she will seek reelection in 2010 and who has said she hopes to raise $20 million for her campaign, presumably needs to maintain good relations with contributors as well as other senators.
"If you're in the Senate, you're probably going to be working with at least one of them again when they don't become president," Jacobson said. "And that way you avoid the potential political problems in making enemies." But the calculations can be very tricky. "A few of them are maybe speculating about cabinet appointments and don't want to offend the potential winner," Jacobson said.
Bay Area lawmakers are largely split. Sen. Dianne Feinstein was one of the earliest endorsements for the Clinton campaign. She is joined by Reps. Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma, Ellen Tauscher of Pleasanton, and Tom Lantos of San Mateo. "This is a very special moment for me because I have the opportunity to endorse the campaign of a U.S. Senator who I believe will be the first female president of the United States," Feinstein said in a press release last July. "Hillary Clinton, I believe, has the experience, the heart, and the strength to be a great American president."
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Atherton, waited until last week to announce her endorsement of Obama, joining Oakland's Rep. Barbara Lee, Miller and Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose. Like her colleagues, Eshoo emphasized the need for change as the reason for hopping on Obama’s bandwagon. "Barack Obama inspires me. He gives me hope," Eshoo said in a press release Wednesday. "He challenges us to dream bigger and reach farther." In Southern California, congressional endorsements are also split, sometimes between families. Rep. Linda Sanchez of Lakewood has endorsed Obama, while her sister Loretta, who represents the Anaheim area, a largely Latino district, has endorsed Clinton. Los Angeles Rep. Diane Watson, who was named an ambassador to Micronesia by President Bill Clinton, endorsed Hillary Clinton months ago.
Rep. Maxine Waters, also of Los Angeles, whose husband President Clinton named an ambassador to the Bahamas, made her endorsement of Clinton last week. "I know that I will have access for my constituents," Waters told NPR's Farai Chideya last week. "I need to be able to be a good advocate for them with someone who will understand, you know, my concrete proposals and be willing to engage me and talk with me and act on them."
— Kim Geiger is a reporter for the California News Service, a project of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.