California’s Democratic Drought

Democrats have struggled to develop a pipeline of young talent in the most important state in the country.

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 28: California Gov. Jerry Brown discusses pension reform during a news conference on August 28, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Brown unveiled what he called 'sweeping' pension reforms that cap benefits, boost the retirement age, prevent abusive practices such as 'spiking' and require new state employees to pay at least half their pension costs. 
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Josh Kraushaar
Feb. 5, 2014, midnight

Cali­for­nia Gov. Jerry Brown, who’s run­ning for a second term at age 76, is oc­ca­sion­ally men­tioned — usu­ally in jest — as a pos­sible 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate. (He’s said he’s not in­ter­ested.) It’s a re­mind­er of how thin the bench bey­ond Hil­lary Clin­ton is in the Demo­crat­ic Party. But Brown him­self is an im­port­ant sym­bol of why Demo­crats have struggled to de­vel­op a deep farm sys­tem of fu­ture na­tion­al can­did­ates. It all starts with Cali­for­nia.

As Demo­crats have held a lock on con­trol of state polit­ics in the last dec­ade, they’ve struggled to de­vel­op a pipeline of tal­ent in the most pop­u­lous Demo­crat­ic state in the coun­try. Brown’s suc­cess­ful gubernat­ori­al comeback in 2010 de­prived young­er of­fice­hold­ers from mak­ing a name for them­selves. Sens. Bar­bara Box­er, 73, and Di­anne Fein­stein, 80, have each held their seats since 1992. Be­fore the 2012 non­par­tis­an re­dis­trict­ing, most House seats were ger­ry­mandered to the point where most mem­bers stayed in their seats in­def­in­itely. (Be­fore the last elec­tion, the av­er­age ten­ure among Cali­for­nia mem­bers of Con­gress in 2012 was just un­der 16 years.)

That’s had ma­jor con­sequences for the na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic Party. The list of pro­spect­ive 2016 can­did­ates is filled with politicos from the oth­er Demo­crat­ic strong­hold of New York — Hil­lary Clin­ton, Gov. An­drew Cuomo, Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand — but there’s no one from Cali­for­nia on the list. It’s strik­ing how few His­pan­ics are rep­res­en­ted in the party’s pres­id­en­tial ranks, even as they make up an es­sen­tial part of the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion.

Blame Cali­for­nia, the di­verse Demo­crat­ic gold­mine, as a pivotal factor in that drought.

With­in Cali­for­nia, top tal­ent has been blocked from seek­ing high­er of­fice thanks to a lo­g­jam of long-ten­ured politicos. Des­pite the state’s di­versity, there isn’t a single His­pan­ic of­fi­cial cur­rently hold­ing statewide of­fice. With­in Con­gress, prom­ising Cali­for­nia Demo­crats, such as House Demo­crat­ic Caucus Chair­man Xavi­er Be­cerra, pre­ferred to move up the ranks rather than think big­ger.

In a state that’s minor­ity-ma­jor­ity, His­pan­ics were un­der­rep­res­en­ted in the state’s Con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion be­fore last year’s re­dis­trict­ing. Most rep­res­ent ger­ry­mandered seats drawn to elect minor­it­ies, which makes it a great­er chal­lenge ap­peal­ing to a broad­er elect­or­ate.

The best-known Demo­crat­ic politi­cian from Cali­for­nia is House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, a po­lar­iz­ing na­tion­al fig­ure whose suc­cess de­pends on man­aging her caucus, not build­ing the pro­files of her col­leagues. Her de­cision to re­main as party lead­er after the dis­astrous 2010 midterms blocked young­er suc­cessors from filling lead­er­ship roles.

The re­cent re­tire­ments of Cali­for­nia Reps. Henry Wax­man and George Miller, after serving a com­bined 80 years in the House, is as power­ful an in­dic­at­or as any of the dis­con­nect between the state’s rep­res­ent­at­ives and their voters. Elec­ted in the Wa­ter­gate class of 1974, the two con­gress­men ac­crued enorm­ous in­flu­ence craft­ing en­ergy, health care, and edu­ca­tion policy. Like many of their Cali­for­nia col­leagues, they nev­er had any in­cent­ive to run statewide when they could build a power base in the House — and have their seat for life.

That of­fers little con­sol­a­tion to the many up-and-com­ing pro­spects blocked from a chance to run. The num­ber of brand-name Demo­crats look­ing to suc­ceed Wax­man — former Los Angeles may­or­al can­did­ate Wendy Greuel, Sec­ret­ary of State Debra Bowen, and state Sen. Ted Lieu among them — is in­dic­at­ive of the pent-up de­mand for a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­er­ship.

There are signs of change on the ho­ri­zon. Cali­for­nia At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Kamala Har­ris heads the list of up-and-com­ing na­tion­al fig­ures, though her path to the gov­ernor­ship was blocked by Brown’s reelec­tion de­cision. Former Los Angeles May­or Ant­o­nio Vil­larai­gosa is touted as a fu­ture statewide can­did­ate. The re­dis­trict­ing shook up the del­eg­a­tion by for­cing early re­tire­ments and mak­ing many races more com­pet­it­ive. The Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee made a con­cer­ted ef­fort to re­cruit a di­verse crop of out­siders to run, like emer­gency phys­i­cian Raul Ruiz and Mark Takano, the first openly gay per­son of col­or to serve in Con­gress.

The dra­mat­ic shakeup of the state’s House del­eg­a­tion in 2012 is likely to even­tu­ally per­col­ate up­wards. Box­er is up for reelec­tion in 2016, and hasn’t de­cided wheth­er she’ll run for a fifth term. Two years later, Fein­stein is up for reelec­tion at age 85 and Brown (if he wins) is term-lim­ited.

But for now, the state that best rep­res­ents the di­verse Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion isn’t pro­du­cing politi­cians that live up to its golden repu­ta­tion.

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