By PETE GOLIS
If you want to know why political insiders fought new election reforms in California, you could ask Assemblyman Michael Allen. Or congressmen Pete Stark and Howard Berman.
Under the election rules that existed before this year, all three incumbents would be gathering with friends this weekend to celebrate victories in Tuesday’s elections.
Instead, Allen, the former Santa Rosan, appears to be on his way to losing his North Bay Assembly seat, and Stark and Berman have already lost their congressional seats. As evidence of a political shake-up, consider this: Combined, Stark and Berman served 70 years in the House of Representatives.
Once upon a time, an incumbent almost never lost an election in California. This arrangement worked OK so long as voters were happy with the work product.
But the time came when voters weren’t happy with government and incumbents kept winning anyway. Then came the revelation: Incumbents win because the rules are stacked in their favor.
Voters responded by changing the rules. This was the first election season in which districts were drawn by a citizens’ commission, not incumbents, and this was the first election season in which the top-two vote getters in the June primary, regardless of party, advanced to the November general election.
Some people who aren’t incumbents also dislike this new primary system. Don Sebastiani, the Sonoma winemaker and a GOP assemblyman in the 1980s, told Staff Writer Guy Kovner last week that Democrat-vs.-Democrat elections in November remind him of “the Soviet politburo.”
Even when one party was dominant, Sebastiani said, he liked the “competition of ideas” provided by a contest between a Republican and a Democrat.
Like them or not, what is not in doubt is that the new rules are changing the landscape for incumbents, especially in districts where one party enjoys an overwhelming edge in registration.
In last week’s election, incumbents Allen, Stark and Berman were all Democrats facing opposition from other Democrats. (The Sacramento Bee counted 28 same-party elections in California on Tuesday.)
Allen’s experience is instructive. For years, Democratic incumbents in the North Bay were, more or less, guaranteed re-election. After all, they had all the advantages — name recognition, a huge edge in registration, interest groups eager to bankroll their campaigns, primaries dominated by the party faithful, district lines designed to accommodate their political needs.
But when an independent commission redrew the boundaries for Assembly districts, Allen found himself without a political base. He was forced to move from his Santa Rosa home to an apartment in San Rafael. For the majority of voters in his new district, he was an unknown candidate. And not even a rush of campaign money from Democratic interest groups could make it all right.
In the latest returns, Allen is trailing San Rafael City Councilman Marc Levine by more than 1,600 votes, and it seems unlikely that the uncounted ballots will change the outcome.
In the East Bay, Pete Stark, 80, the dean of California’s congressional delegation, lost his seat to a Dublin city councilman named Eric Swalwell. Stark was first elected in 1972, which was nine years before Swalwell was born.
In Los Angeles County, Howard Berman lost to fellow Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman after the redistricting commission placed both incumbents in the same district.
Berman, 71, served 30 years in Congress and 10 years before that in the state Assembly, representing the west side of Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley. For all that time, he was one of the region’s most powerful figures.
But he couldn’t do anything about voter-mandated election reforms.
In the recent past, party nominees tended to be the most liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans. In Sacramento, the result was a more partisan and polarized Legislature — and years of stalemate.
As might be expected, the number of voters who didn’t want to align with either party continued to grow. Today there are almost as many independent voters in Sonoma County (21.13 percent) as there are Republican voters (21.73 percent).
New election rules are designed to allow independents and moderates to claim, in time, a larger voice in the outcome of state elections. In the meantime, the new rules serve as a reminder to incumbents that they can be held accountable.
On Tuesday, Californians surprised many observers by approving a tax increase designed to head off a budget disaster and buy time to put the state back on a solid financial footing.
Starting now, voters will be watching to see if the Legislature is worthy of their trust. Lawmakers can make the hard choices necessary to balance the budget and protect essential services, or they can manufacture another budget held together by debt and accounting gimmicks.
The Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature know which path leads to a better future. Now we wait to find out if they are up to the task.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at email@example.com.