Long-Term Paycheck Trumps Sacramento Power

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

In politics, as in much of life, when it comes to a choice between power and a paycheck, cash usually wins.

Just ask Democratic State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, who had to make just that choice last week.

The 61-year-old DeSaulnier was one of the frontrunners to take over the state Senate’s top job when state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who’s termed out in November, gives up the post.

Then Rep. George Miller announced he was giving up the Martinez congressional seat he’s held for nearly 40 years.

When it comes to political clout, there’s no comparison between the two jobs. With Democrats in total command of the Legislature, the state Senate leader helps set the agenda for California, deciding to a large extent what will and won’t get done in each session. Even the governor has to make nice to him, along with every other legislator, lobbyist and interest group that wants something from Sacramento.

As a first-term back-bencher in what is still likely to be the House minority come next January, DeSaulnier probably won’t even get the big bedroom in the Washington, D.C., apartment he may be sharing with a couple of Democratic compadres.

But then there’s that paycheck. Not the one that comes in every month, although the current $174,000 annual salary for a member of Congress is a pretty nice jump from the $95,526 California state legislators now get. Instead, it’s the check that can come year after year after year in one of the few political jobs that doesn’t come with term limits.

After two years in the Assembly, DeSaulnier was elected to the state Senate in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. That leaves him with just two more years before he’s ushered out the door, thanks to the state Senate’s two-term maximum (Since DeSaulnier was first elected under the old term limit rules, he doesn’t qualify for the revised term limits approved by voters in 2012).

That’s a big deal for an ambitious politician (and there is no other kind). With no term limits to worry about, incumbents in seats with a friendly partisan tilt can generally stay in office as long as they like. And that can be a long, long time.

In the Bay Area, where Republicans need not apply for congressional seats, the opportunity to grab what can be a lifetime job doesn’t come often. Miller, for example, will retire after 40 years in office. Pete Stark, who lost his East Bay seat to fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell in 2012, was 80 years old and a 40-year veteran of Congress in his final campaign.

And when someone like Swalwell, who is only 33 years old, goes to Congress, he can tie up that seat for plenty of years.

Just ask Ro Khanna, who raised more than $1 million for a potential 2012 challenge to Stark, but decided to wait until 2014, when he expected Stark would retire. Bad call. With Swalwell now in that office, Khanna has taken his war chest south to San Jose to challenge fellow Democrat Mike Honda in 2014. He’s not waiting for Honda to retire.

With opportunities to move to D.C. few and far between, politicians don’t let minor details like living outside the district boundaries deter them, especially since under federal law just because you represent a district doesn’t mean you really have to live there.

When then- Lt. Gov. John Garamendi ran in 2009 to replace Rep. Ellen Tauscher in the 10th Congressional District, he didn’t actually live in the district, which then stretched from Livermore almost to Vacaville. That didn’t bother the voters, who elected him anyway.

Down in Southern California, former GOP state Sen. Tony Strickland reportedly was planning to seek a rematch this year in the Ventura County congressional district where he lost to Democrat Julia Brownley in 2012. But when it became clear that Republican Rep. Buck McKeon was ready to retire in a neighboring district, Strickland hurriedly switched gears – and districts.

Then there’s GOP Rep. Tom McClintock. In 2008, he was a state senator from Thousand Oaks where, by state law, he had to have his permanent residence. But when scandal-plagued Rep. John Doolittle of Roseville decided to retire, McClintock decided to run in that rural district, which extended from the Sacramento suburbs to the Oregon border.

Because he held on to his Southern California state Senate seat during the campaign, McClintock ended up winning a race where he wasn’t eligible to vote for himself.

This isn’t DeSaulnier’s first try for a trip to D.C. In that 2009 run for the seat Tauscher gave up for a State Department job, he finished behind Garamendi in the primary. Still, the decision he made last week, trading the possibility of a couple years of serious power in Sacramento for the chance to become a little-known face in a crowd of 435 in Washington, would be echoed by virtually every other legislator.

To be a politician, you have to stay in politics. And a term-limits-free Congress lets officeholders do just that.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics. 

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