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Monday, April 20, 2009

Political Calculus

There are those who follow politics the way others follow baseball and box scores, there are hits, runs and errors. These days in the City of Long Beach, and the State of California, one needs not a box score but a calendar. For any politician, or anyone thinking of becoming a politician in Long Beach, a calendar is the most important tool in the box; well besides financing from unions.

Term limits are the root cause of our state's political and budgetary problems. While term limits in the city create problems locally, even our city budget issues can be traced directly to the term limits for elected officials in Sacramento. Enacted in 1990 by voters, primarily to get then Speaker Willie Brown out of office, members of the State Assembly are limited to three terms of two years each and members of the State Senate are limited to two terms of four years each.

Further compounding the problems caused by term limits on the state level has been the drawing of legislative districts that create "safe seats." In the last election voters passed one of the few worthwhile propositions we have seen in the past two decades, Proposition 11 took the ability to redraw legislative districts out of the hands of the legislature and gave the power to a panel appointed by a commission of auditors. If the Prop 11 re-districting commission works as voters hope then after the 2010 census our state's legislative districts will be redrawn to more accurately reflect population and geographic boundaries than political party boundaries. However, big however, the changes will not be in effect until the 2012 state elections at the earliest.

Virtually every seat in the California Assembly and California Senate is a "safe seat". Our Bixby Knolls abode sits in the 55th Assembly District and the 27 Senate District, it does not really matter who the elected representatives are because they have been and will be Democrats due to the districts each being over 65% registered Democrat. So while we have term limits for those currently in office, what we have is a revolving door of the same person in a different body always in the Assembly and the Legislature.

Everyone knows when a seat will become available, and everyone knows who will get elected. In all but 3 of the Assembly and Senate seats whoever has a (D) next to their name on the ballot in November will win the election. In the other seats the winner of the Republican primary will win the election. So if you live in the Bixby Knolls area your Assembly representative, Wayne Furutani who was elected in a special election in 2008 will be leaving office in 2016 (finish his special election term then finish his two terms under term limits).

Of greater interest locally is when will Bonnie Lowenthal be termed out of office following her election to the State Assembly in 2008? Following her re-election in 2010 (and with the safe districts how can she not?) Lowenthal is termed out of her seat. And already individuals are lining up to take a run at her seat which overlaps parts of the both the Long Beach 1st City Council District and the Long Beach 7th City Council District. If my map reading and knowledge of home addresses is correct, this confluence of term limits and current district boundaries presents a 2014 showdown between two very bright up and comers in the Democratic Party.

Earlier this month Robert Garcia ran a perfect campaign on the Obama blueprint and won a special election for the Long Beach 1st Council District (filling the seat vacated by Bonnie Lowenthal). Garcia was attacked by the local Democratic Party because he is a "newcomer" to the party, but make no mistake Garcia's politics are very aligned with the Democratic majority in the region. Everything about Garcia makes him star material for the Democrats, born in South America, immigrating with his parents as a young child, received amnesty under President Reagan, left the Republican Party, Hispanic, homosexual, working on a PhD, incredibly bright and articulate and handsome to boot; Garcia is a great political package and he has a political future beyond the Long Beach city council. Garcia will be finishing his first term, presuming he wins his re-election in 2010, which he will by landslide, when Lowenthal is termed out of office in 2014.

Further uptown Long Beach City Council 7th District Representative Tonia Reyes Uranga is being termed out of office in 2010 and her husband Roberto Uranga was a stated and obvious candidate to keep this seat under family control. Uh, not so fast. You see the 1st District is not the only geographic area of the state with young, intelligent and political savvy individuals. A few days after Garcia won the election for the 1st District, James Johnson announced his candidacy for the 7th Council Seat in 2010.

Johnson gets a complete breakdown of his experience in the City of Long Beach on the Long Beach Report, while I am generally not a huge fan of the site's primary contributor his history on Johnson taken in context is pretty thorough. Johnson is very intelligent and also a rising star in the Democratic Party. He apparently is also good at math as if he wins the 7th District Council seat he will be ending his first term when....Bonnie Lowenthal is termed out of office.

Now there is a chance that the 54th Assembly District Boundaries could be redrawn before the 2014 election, but with the natural border of the 710 Freeway on the western edge of part of the district any redrawing will probably include the home bases of both Garcia and Johnson. Looking beyond the Assmebly both are in the same California State Senate District as well as the same Congressional District.

Because of term limits both these intelligent young men know what is avaiable politically in 2014, know their best chance of winning the prize of the Assembly is to have experience on the City Council to help boost their fund raising and friend making, and know that even with re-districting their district will not change much demographically--it will still be solidly Democrat. Further, both being bright they know that incumbents within the party are extremely difficult to beat so they must win in 2014 to continue their political futures.

So sports fans, grab some popcorn and a lawn chair. The race for the 7th District Council Seat in Long Beach is a race for much more than just that seat. Due to political calculus and term limits it is also a race to set up opponents in 2014 between two of our city's brightest young men with equally bright political futures...potentially.


John Greet said...

Dennis: Very nice analysis. But I’m a little slower than the average reader. How are term limits the “root cause” of our State’s (and City’s) budgetary problems?

Is it because you feel “term limits” have a lessening effect on the institutional memory of some politicians?

Or because some politicians show less restraint because they know their days in a given office are numbered from the moment they take the oath?

How do you feel the absence of term limits would solve either of these adverse effects?

Is it not the electorate’s institutional memory we should be more concerned with improving? If we, collectively, would simply better remember the fiscal performance of a given local politician, wouldn’t doing so be our best defense against similar performance should that politician seek higher office?

Wouldn’t politicians show more restraint if their numbered days were numbered still less (through recall) if they failed to do so? If we, collectively, took our responsibility as a self-governed people in a free society more seriously, and removed, in every case, a representative that failed to meet our standard of conduct, wouldn’t that be the strongest assurance against and politician playing fast and loose with taxpayer funds?
I’ll admit that I feel term limits to be one of the biggest electoral cop-out’s ever. They prevent good legislators from continuing to serve us if that is our wish and they can provide unscrupulous politicians to grab all they can during their mandated-by-law limited time in a give office.

But the worst effect, to my mind, of term limits is simply this: Through them we essentially abdicated our responsibility to be discerning, to retain assertive control of our government.

We should be able to either keep good representatives serving us for as long as they choose to do so (by continuing to vote for them year after year) or we should be more willing to toss bad representatives out at the first sign of trouble (through recall and impeachment).

But term limits allows us to say to ourselves: “Yes, they are doing a great job but you know they’ll be corrupted if we let them stay too long” or “Yes, we know they’re miserable wretches but at least we only have to put up with them for “x” more years.

Through term limits we have abdicated some of our essential responsibility as self-governed people in a free society.

That’s what I say. What say you?

Haiku Frank (D) said...

Calculus neglects/
The Lieutenant Governor:/
Alan Lowenthal.

Dennis C Smith said...


I want to address term limits in a later post, and addressed them previously on the LBPost. Suffice it to say with the current set up our Legislature has become revolving door of electeds trading spaces when term limits come up, see Lowenthal and Karnette. With no long term gain in their current office they treat like a renter treats their abode--it is someone elses and they have no ownership.

Franken: Yes I have completely ommitted the entire Lowenthal family tree from this calculus model: Alan, Suja, Josh are all players in this little dance. One can see that Evan Braude's failed bid for the 1st was part of it as well--as one person commented to me he was perhaps running to block Suja from someday having her soon to be ex-mother in-laws seat.

A big concern in all of this for non-Democrats is the size of the bench in Long Beach for another decade or more of candidates to control our local elections.

Bob Schilling said...

I agree entirely with your comment on term limits. The revolving door they create makes party leaders on both sides -- the ones who control support in the primaries -- far more powerful than they should be. Primary winners win the election, so the primary becomes the real test. And the "churn" created by term limits ensure a steady supply of office-seekers. The present system also prevents the development of independent legislators with their own power bases.

I'd happily trade term limits for real electoral reform -- districts that reflect the actual division between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.