Bill Lockyer Shows the Problem of Term Limits

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

For those Californians who remain convinced that term limits represent the solution to all the state’s problems, may I present state Treasurer Bill Lockyer.

That would be former Assemblyman Bill Lockyer. And former state Sen. Bill Lockyer. And former Attorney General Bill Lockyer. And, if all goes according to plan, after next November’s elections, state Controller Bill Lockyer.

Lockyer, a 71-year-old Hayward Democrat, was first elected to the Assembly in 1973 and has stayed in one public office or another ever since, despite a steady onslaught of voter-backed rules designed to sweep him and all other veteran politicians from Sacramento.

Their crime? Well, Lockyer and all those other longtime officeholders were generally good at their jobs, which made them popular enough with voters to keep getting re-elected to office.

In years past, politicians often found a job they liked and were content to stay there. Frank M. Jordan was secretary of state from 1943 until 1970 and March Fong Eu spent 19 years in that same office. Willie Brown was in the Assembly from 1965 to 1995 and Ralph Dills spent 32 years as a state senator.

Then, as now, there were no guarantees. In 1966, Democrat Pat Brown decided to break with tradition and seek a third term as governor. Voters – and Republican Ronald Reagan – had other ideas.

But with term limits now enshrined into law, that’s not going to happen any more, which turns politicians like Lockyer into serial officeholders, maxing out each political job and then looking for another rung on the ladder.

Term limits were sold to California voters as a means of sweeping career politicians from office, clearing the way for citizen statesmen who, like the Roman Cincinnatus, would reluctantly accept public office, serve briefly with honor and competence and then return gratefully to their farm/insurance office/union hall/auto dealership, leaving the state the better for it.

Newsflash: It hasn’t happened. If there’s one statewide officeholder anxious to leave the political world and return to civilian life, let’s just say they’re hiding that desire real well.

But that doesn’t matter to the forces of government reform, who have two guiding principles when it comes to politicians.

First, all politicians are either corrupt or will be if they stay in office long enough.

Second, voters – good government types excepted, of course – just aren’t smart enough to realize that, so they can’t be trusted to vote out any crooks, grifters or incompetents in public office.

So that leaves popular and capable politicians like Lockyer, who voters both in the East Bay and statewide have sent to Sacramento for 40 years, forced to drift from term-limited office to term-limited office in an attempt to serve the state, rather than finding the political job he’s best at and doing that work until the voters say otherwise.

So is Lockyer the real victim of term limits? Or is California?

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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