Life Without Term Limits May Attract Bowen

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

You think it’s the weather?

For the second time in less than 18 months, one of California’s top elected officials is looking to jump ship in Sacramento in for the bright lights and freezing winters of Washington, D.C.

This time it’s Secretary of State Debra Bowen, whose political consultant told the Sacramento Bee that the veteran Democratic officeholder is “very, very seriously considering running for Congress” to replace Rep. Jane Harman.

When someone says “very” twice, you know it must be serious.

Harman, a centrist Democrat who is resigning to take over as president of Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, represents the 36th Congressional District The Los Angeles district runs from San Pedro north to Marina del Rey, which Bowen represented as an assemblywoman and state senator.

Bowen’s non-announcement announcement came almost as soon as Harman let her supporters know about her decision Monday morning. The official announcement of Harman’s new job is expected today.

Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who lost last June’s Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, is already in the race and more candidates are likely on the way.

It’s not a surprise that Bowen is looking at running for another office. That’s what politicians do. But it’s a little sad that Bowen is looking to leave a job she seems to like –- and one she’s brought a surprising amount of visibility to –- to take her place as a nearly invisible backbencher in a House run by Republicans.

Of course there’s no real secret to the reasoning there, either. Sure, the 55-year-old Bowen won an easy re-election victory in November and is looking at four more years in office. But under California’s term limit rules, come 2014, her political career could be over.

Bowen’s already has done her six years in the Assembly and eight in the state Senate, so when she finishes her second term as secretary of state, it’s up or out.

But with Harman’s seat unexpectedly coming open, everything changes. A seat in Congress is the Holy Grail for politicians, since it’s one of the last partisan jobs in the country that doesn’t have term limits attached. And with the strongly partisan makeup of most congressional districts – and don’t expect that to change much in even the fairest redistricting – a seat in the House can easily be a lifetime job.

Just ask Bay Area Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, a longtime state legislator who took a serious look at a run for attorney general last year. In the end, Speier said “family considerations” and concern for her constituents convinced her to stay in Washington.

But Speier won her November contest with 75 percent of the vote and is looking at years of low-cost, low-stress, landslide victories in her future. Don’t say that didn’t play a part in her decision.

If Bowen runs and wins, she’ll be following in the footsteps of John Garamendi, who in 2009 resigned as lieutenant governor after winning a special election for a Northern California congressional seat.

But it’s not really the same. When Garamendi ran for Congress, he already was unhappy with a job that sounds way more important than it is. Less than halfway into his first term as lieutenant governor, he already was planning for a likely suicide run for governor, figuring he’d rather lose and go back to his ranch than spend another four years with nothing to do.

Bowen’s different. Unlike many politicians who see any statewide office other than governor as little more than a place to land while they prep for their next campaign, Bowen actually wanted to be secretary of state.

In the Legislature, she worked on election security and voter privacy issues and fought to put more government information online. As secretary of state, she led the effort to make voting machines more secure and pushed to make campaign finances more transparent.

Bowen has been a highly visible secretary of state and one who hasn’t been afraid to battle legislators and local officials over what she sees as the best and most efficient ways to run California elections. During her re-election campaign, Bowen said there was still plenty that needed to be done in California.

“I look forward to continuing my work and making our voting systems as secure, accurate, reliable and accessible as possible,” Bowen said on her campaign site after winning re-election.

But that was three months ago and Harman’s seat is open now.


John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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