10th CD Race Means a Lifetime Job

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

There’s a couple reasons California’s lieutenant governor, the local state senator and a newly minted assemblywoman all are scuffling to win today’s primary for the Bay Area’s 10th Congressional District.

First, it’s a special election in the district, which includes most of Contra Costa County, along with smaller chunks of Alameda, Solano and Sacramento counties. Since Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher resigned in June to take a State Department job, that means this is a free ride for elected officials, who can run for a new job and still keep their old one. That’s a gift from heaven for politicians.

But it’s also a seat in Congress that’s up for grabs. In these days of term limits – and gerrymandered districts – a House seat is as close as it comes to a guaranteed lifetime job.

In 2008, for example, 94 percent of the country’s 435 members of Congress were re-elected. Since 1976, the only time that rate has fallen below 90 percent was in 1992, when it skidded all the way down to 88 percent.

Those congressional seats are even more attractive in California, where almost every political job has term limits. That means it’s either up or out for office holders who aren’t lucky enough to be in Congress.

Not surprisingly, those seats don’t come open very often. Of the 12 Bay Area congressional seats, only two have changed hands since 2000. Democrat Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton beat seven-term Republican Rep. Dick Pombo in 2006 and Democrat Jackie Speier of Hillsborough replaced 14-term Rep. Tom Lantos after his death last year.

That means that a race for Congress – or at least a successful one – is often a one-shot deal, run now or forever hold your piece. Democrats George Miller of Martinez and Pete Stark of Fremont, for example, have both been in Congress since the early 1970s, which has closed the road to Washington for dozens of Bay Area politicians over the years.

The Bay Area seats, all held by Democrats, also are pretty comfortable politically. While McNerney collected 55 percent against a strong GOP candidate in his first re-election try last November, every other Bay Area representative won with at least 65 percent of the vote, with eight grabbing better than 70 percent.

As an added bonus, congressional seats also were left out of Prop. 11, the redistricting reform measure that passed last year. That means that the Legislature still gets to draw the lines for California’s 53 congressional districts, which is good news for incumbents – and incumbents to be.

With all those goodies, it’s hard to say no to a chance to move to Washington, as Democratic Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan discovered. Buchanan won a tough race for the Assembly last November, taking what had been the Bay Area’s last Republican-held legislative seat.

But when Tauscher resigned, it was an opportunity Buchanan couldn’t pass up. She jumped into the congressional race just months after joining the Legislature and has put $500,000 of her own money into the campaign.

Mark DeSaulnier also didn’t waste any time getting in the race, even though he just moved from the Assembly to the state Senate in November. But term limits are a ticking clock for any legislator.

It’s a little different for Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a lifelong politician who’s in his first term in the state’s number two office. While Garamendi was talking in 2006 about all the wonderful things he would do as lieutenant governor, he quickly discovered what his predecessors had found: as long as the governor is alive, there’s really not much to do in his job.

Garamendi already had decided that one-term was more than enough and was preparing for a long-shot run for governor. But he changed his sights when Tauscher resigned, despite living just outside the district in Walnut Grove.

Since no one’s likely to get the 50 percent plus one needed to win the seat outright tonight, the top vote-getters from each party will meet in the Nov. 3 general election, where the Democratic nominee, regardless of who it is, will be an overwhelming favorite.

And if history holds true, whomever wins that contest will be around for a while.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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