For a state that has long been a symbol of youth, there’s been a lot of age among California’s pre-eminent politicians of the last decade. But that began to change in 2012, and the shift accelerated this summer as many of the old guard chose not to brave the “top two” primary system that threatened to expose them to serious intraparty challenges.
Changes in the state’s congressional delegation two years ago saw departures of the long-serving likes of Fortney “Pete” Stark (East Bay Area), David Dreier (San Dimas), Jerry Lewis (Redlands), Elton Gallegly (Simi Valley), Mary Bono Mack (Palm Springs), and George Radanovich (Merced), all either retiring or getting turned out.
The trend continued this year, with congressional kingpins such as Howard “Buck” McKeon (Santa Clarita), Henry Waxman (West Los Angeles) and George Miller (East Bay Area) retiring. All three are or have been chairmen of major House committees. This is as bi-partisan a trend as can be, affecting Republicans and Democrats almost equally.
It will surely grow in coming years, as a quick look at the ages of those who represent the coastal districts from San Francisco to Santa Barbara makes clear. These usually solid Democratic districts stretch hundreds of miles south from the San Francisco turf of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 74, who bristles at questions about her age. There are also Jackie Speier, 64, of San Mateo; Anna Eshoo, 71, of Palo Alto; Zoe Lofgren, 66, whose district reaches from San Jose to Gilroy; Mike Honda, 72, now facing a serious challenge in his San Jose district; Sam Farr, 72, of Monterey County; and Lois Capps, 76, of Santa Barbara County.
All are highly capable. But any of them could draw a major challenge at any time, as Stark did two years ago, when the 40-year congressional veteran from Alameda County, now 82, was surprised and beaten by an intra-party challenge from then 31-year-old Eric Swalwell, a Dublin city councilman. Swalwell beat Stark in their all-Democrat 2012 runoff by a thin 52-48 percent margin. So Stark, like many of his former colleagues, would most likely still be in Congress but for the top two system which permitted the Republican minority in his district – displeased by his long liberal record – to vote against him. No GOP candidate would stand a chance in that district.
Chances are seats in most districts seeing change will not change parties, but they will get younger representatives who figure to start as back-benchers many years away from any hope of chairing a big-time committee.
Change is also in the wind in statewide offices, where Gov. Jerry Brown will likely be reelected one last time this year, with the Democratic logjam behind him at last beginning to break up after that. Former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, for one, wanted to be governor four years ago, but Brown’s strength forced him to settle for lieutenant governor. Still, no one will simply hand him the top state job. Expect people like Attorney General Kamala Harris, Controller John Chiang, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and possibly his successor, current Mayor Eric Garcetti, all to consider 2018 runs for the state’s top job.
And should either of California’s aging pair of U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, step down – a possibility if Democrats lose their Senate majority this fall and both lose the committee chairmanships they love – any of the current gubernatorial prospects and some folks now in Congress might seek that job instead of running for governor.
It’s tough to predict who might emerge among Republicans, because they now hold no statewide offices and are not favored to win any this fall, either. But a respectable autumn run against Brown by businessman Neel Kashkari, Brown’s fall opponent, could propel him into prominence.
The one thing that’s sure in all this is change. It’s coming, as is the end of the near monopoly on high office now enjoyed by people in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at [email protected]