Redistribution, term limits, opportunities prompt California lawmakers to ‘Big Resign’

Rep. Lorena Gonzalez easily won re-election in the 80th District in 2018. Photo by Chris Stone

Will the last legislator in the house turn off the lights, please?

Fueled by approaching term limits, new district lines, and a slew of political opportunities outside of the state capitol, more than a dozen California lawmakers have sought employment elsewhere.

At last count, an exodus of 18 lawmakers and state senators either chose not to seek re-election in November or ended it halfway through.

That doesn’t include the seven members, all senators barred from reelection in 2022 by statutory term limits. Nor does Republican Murrieta Kelly Seyarto, who hopes to jump from the assembly to the Senate, or Orange County Republican Janet Nguyen, who hopes to do the same.

It’s not just the number; it is also the power and greatness of those who leave.

Last week alone, the Capitol said goodbye to progressive San Diego leader Lorena Gonzalez, who left the convention to take the top job at the California Labor Federation. Then came successive announcements from the Democrats Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino and MP Patrick O’Donnell of Long Beach, both of whom said they would not seek re-election despite having four years left to serve under the term-limits law. Then, on Thursday, Rocklin Republican Houseman Kevin Kiley, who was running for governor in 2021, announced that he would be running for Congress.

On Monday, former Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes of Rancho Mirage, now the sole independent in the Legislature, announced that he is no longer running and is considering running for Congress. “I’ve seen firsthand the dangers of partisan politics. Blind faith in political teams has created a toxic tribalism that is tearing apart families, friendships, communities and this country,” he tweeted.

On Tuesday, Senator Andreas Borgeas, a Republican from Fresno, said he would not seek another term. On Wednesday, Senator Sydney Kamlager, a Democrat from Los Angeles, officially announced that she is running for Congress. And on Thursday, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, a Republican from San Luis Obispo, said he would not seek re-election.

It’s a bipartisan phenomenon: so far, 18 Democrats, 6 Republicans and one Independent aren’t coming back.

It’s all leading to an unusual churn that’s already the largest in at least seven years. In 2012, California voters passed Proposition 28, increasing the time the legislature can serve in both houses to a total of 12 years. That had ushered in a new era of job security for lawmakers and continuity for the legislature as a whole.

But after the elections in November there will be at least 25 new MPs out of a total of 120. Special elections will be held on February 15th and April 5th to fill the four already vacant parliamentary seats.

And this election year is still young: candidates have until mid-March to declare their candidacy for office – or not.

Some incumbents and lobbyists say this year’s changing of the guard has the potential to shake the Capitol’s policy-making momentum.

When seasoned legislators move on, they take their political expertise and legislative know-how with them. O’Donnell and Leyva both serve as chairs of the K-12 education committee, and last month assembly member Jose Medina, who chairs the assembly’s higher education committee, announced that 2022 would also be his final meeting.

“There is a risk that not only will leaders with exceptional backgrounds and expertise be lost, but also employees who have enabled the implementation of their policies,” said Jessie Ryan, lobbyist at the Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Kristina Bas Hamilton, a lobbyist and consultant who represents unions and anti-poverty groups in Sacramento, said the turnover is making things less predictable for those involved in driving policy change and wrestling support for controversial legislation. For one, lawmakers who keep tabs on other breeds may be more circumspect or distracted.

“When there’s uncertainty, nobody wants to commit to big things,” she said. The premature departure of incumbents also means new board leadership. For political advocates who back a particular law, that changes “the whole landscape.”

O’Donnell said his decision not to run for re-election was not politically motivated. “I’m not getting any younger … and being an elected official is not the sum of my being,” he said. He plans to return to teaching as a high school government teacher.

But the fact that many of his peers are preparing to run for Congress or a local office on their way out “will have an impact on politics,” he said. “People are likely to be more cautious about the big bills that aim to make Herculean changes.”

where is everyone going

The “great resignation” of the legislature is being driven by a number of policy trends – all of which came to a head around the same time.

A series of resignations in Congress and changes in district lines have inspired some lawmakers to seek higher office. Such is the case for Kevin Mullin, a San Mateo Democrat who is second in the assembly’s pecking order to Speaker Anthony Rendon, who was backed by retiring US Rep. Jackie Speier to succeed him.

After Rep. Karen Bass announced her candidacy for Los Angeles mayor last year, Kamlager opened a congressional fundraising committee before making it official this week.

Members of the State Assembly on the first day of the legislative session on January 3, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

The term-limit approach may also push some incumbents toward early retirement. Of the 14 MPs who have so far not sought re-election in 2022, 10 would have been recalled in 2024 anyway.

“Some of these members wanted to raise a bunch of money for – what?” said Republican strategist Matt Rexroad. “Go serve just two more years and then have nothing obvious [state] to run for Senate and Congress seats?”

If the number of retirements in 2022 looks big, it’s nothing compared to the next cycle, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., which provides voter tracking services for Democratic campaigns. Since the legislature’s 12-year curb law went into effect in 2012, “you’re going to see all of the congregation’s sales between 2024 and 2028,” he said.

This is good news for those who make their money from elections. “Advisors who have made it through the past few years with minimal polling activity are finally going to get some great years,” Mitchell said.

New maps, new politics

Perhaps the biggest factor driving political revenue: The state’s recolored election maps.

Last week, incumbent Republican Rep. Tom McClintock announced that he would run to represent the state’s new 5th congressional district, which stretches across the Sierra foothills from Placerville to Kings Canyon National Park and encompasses much of the district , represented by Republican Devin Nunes. who resigned last week to run former President Donald Trump’s new media venture.

That left the northern part of McClintock’s old district without an incumbent – clearing the way for Kiley to make his move.

When assembling the new districts for the state’s 120 legislative and 52 congressional seats, California’s Independent Electoral Commission was forbidden to consider an incumbent’s political prospects. In some cases, the commission moved politically safe legislators to more competitive seats, stripped them of the communities they felt most aligned with, or placed multiple legislators in the same district.

When Gonzalez started the union job earlier this month, she sidestepped a difficult decision of either running against Akilah Weber, a member of the San Diego Democratic Assembly, or moving to another district. State legislators, unlike members of Congress, must reside in their districts.

Likewise, Labor champion Leyva was placed in the same Senate district of the Inland Empire as moderate Democrat Senator Susan Rubio. However, Leyva said her decision not to run again had nothing to do with the prospect of a costly intra-party re-election campaign.

Instead, she said the new district, which now extends into the San Gabriel Valley, no longer reflects her geographic allegiances. “My heart goes out to San Bernardino County,” she told CalMatters. “These are my people.”

So far, a handful of paired incumbents have chosen to go head-to-head with a current colleague from the same party. Democratic Assembly Representatives Laura Friedman and Adrin Nazarian will compete in the San Fernando Valley. The same goes for Democratic state senators Anna Caballero of Salinas and Melissa Hurtado of Sanger. And Assembly Republicans Tom Lackey and Thurston Smith will be vying for the same high desert district stretching from Lancaster to the Nevada border.

When asked about the prospect of running against a colleague and party member, Smith quoted Ronald Reagan’s “11. Commandment not to badmouth another Republican. “Be polite. Let’s talk about the problems,” he said. For his part, Lackey called the match-up “awkward” but said the race was nothing personal.

He also dismissed the notion that it would affect his votes in the legislature: “I’ll still be the same guy I was before.”

And for those incumbents who choose not to fight or leave, there’s the Evan Low approach. After getting settled in the same assembly district with Los Altos Rep. Marc Berman, the Cupertino Democrat decided to settle things with a mock pillow fight — before announcing he was moving to a neighboring district to seek re-election apply for.

Moving is not for everyone. Sen. Josh Newman of Fullerton was transferred to the same district as Sen. Dave Min, an Orange County Democrat. Since the terms of office of the Senate last four years and both were elected in 2020, they only have to decide on how to proceed in 2024.

Newman has already ruled out the possibility of relocating to solve the impasse.

“I can only imagine this conversation,” he said. “I say to my wife, ‘Hey, I have this great idea!’ And she would say, ‘Hey, take care. Keep in touch.'”

CalMatters reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn contributed to this story.

CalMatters is a nonprofit journalism company that explains how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.

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