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California's Democratic politicians: The logjam cracks, soon to break

The rush of interest by local politicos and would be politicos to succeed veteran Congressman Henry Waxman underscored an odd truth about California politics: in a state that prides itself on chasing the next snazzy new thing, most of its high-ranking elected officials are anything but.

California’s two U.S. senators have each served for 21 years. Its governor is seeking a record fourth term in office.

The state is increasingly young and Latino, but its most prominent political officials aren’t: Dianne Feinstein is 80, Jerry Brown is 75 and Barbara Boxer is 73. Their presence at the top of the ticket has effectively blocked a generation of Democrats from moving up, not that any of them is impolitic enough to say so publicly.

The Waxman seat is an example of the benefits and frustrations that longevity can simultaneously produce.

Waxman, 74, was a prodigious legislator, a man whose accomplishments inspired reverence from Democrats and praise even from some Republicans. His legislative heft resulted in no small part from his long tenure in office, which allowed him to pursue goals over an extended period with the benefit of relationships built over time.

And still, ambitious Westside pols might have muttered: 40 years we had to wait?

Not all of those who want to elbow aside the veterans are as well equipped to serve, and the veterans understandably bridle at the notion that after achieving the political heights they should just stand down unilaterally. That, they argue, is unfair to them personally and to the state’s interests, not to mention ageist.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker who is now 73, grew angry last year when the subject of age was raised during a news conference by a reporter young enough to be her grandson. 

"Some of your colleagues privately say that your decision to stay on (as House minority leader) prohibits the party from having a younger leadership and hurts the party in the long term," said the reporter, NBC’s Luke Russert. "What's your response?"

As Pelosi sought to move to the next question, some of her colleagues shouted “Boo!” and “age discrimination!”

"Let's for a moment honor it as a legitimate question, although it's quite offensive," Pelosi said eventually. "You don't realize that, I guess."

As to the meat of his question — whether the ages of the leaders hurt Democrats — Pelosi said "the answer is no."

The issue rarely arises overtly in campaigns, as much as anything out of fear that older voters — among the most dependable balloteers — will exact revenge. Still, the worry is there. Not for nothing did Jerry Brown in 2010 challenge reporters and practically anyone else who'd listen to tests of physical strength and note that, with his forebearers extending into their 90s, age was relative.

(His most famous challenge was made to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie last September after the Republican called him “an old retread.”

(“I’m old. I’m 74. I’ll be 74 and a half next month. But here I am. You know, there is some experience. Hopefully there’s some wisdom,” Brown recounted on CNN. He asked Christie to take part in a three-mile race, and “try some chin-ups maybe, and some push-ups,’” Brown said. “This old retread can beat you any day of the week.” )

The real question for Democratic leaders is not physical dominance but something more difficult to quantify: political relevance.

Feinstein and Boxer remain popular political figures in the state, not least because of their historic status as the first one-two female Senate team in a state where women are well more than half of the voters. For most women, to be sure, policy positions and gender matter more than age. And elections are, in any case, the simplest way of figuring out what is most relevant to voters. Feinstein has been elected statewide five times; Boxer four.

But at the least, the state’s dominant Democratic Party has a yawning gulf between what it is and who leads it.

A study by the Public Policy Institute of California last year found that 51% of Democrats were nonwhite. And 58% were age 54 and under. Not incidentally, only 26% were from the Bay Area, from which Brown, Feinstein, Boxer, Pelosi and state Democratic Chairman John Burton, age 81, spring.

Behind those stalwarts, the number of high-ranking statewide candidates in, say, their 50s and 60s, has shrunk. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, 61, is seen as the most obvious member of that thwarted generation. And behind him, a new generation is rising: among prominent Democrats in their 40s are the 49-year-old Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, the 46-year-old Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the 42-year-old mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti. (Few if any Republicans are well known statewide due to California’s blue hue: Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is the third-ranking GOP leader in Congress but mostly unknown outside his interior base.)

Garry South, who has run four governor’s races, including an abridged effort by Newsom that fell to Brown’s 2010 resurrection, said that Democrats have long talked quietly about the party gridlock, while at the same time expressing allegiance to the Democratic veterans.

“If you look at California as a whole and look at the Democratic Party here, the torch hasn’t really been passed to a new generation,” he said, co-opting the slogan that John F. Kennedy used in 1960 to dispatch his elders.

As South pointed out, though, the gridlock may soon give way. Boxer is up for election in 2016, and has not publicly said whether she will seek another term. Feinstein is up in 2018, ditto. Besides their personal desires, the decisions by both may rest on whether Republicans gain control of the Senate in November, which would cost them key committee posts and influence.

Brown would be termed out of office in 2018 were he to win reelection (and an unlikely defeat of the popular governor would open the doors to Democratic competitors then anyway.)

Those races, along with the state’s top two rules, by which the top finishers move on to the general election even if they are of the same party, would give Democrats more high-profile slots than they have seen in a generation. Two Democrats of relatively equal strength could compete against one another for the governorship in November, for example, rather than voters choosing from the traditional Democrat versus Republican framing.

“The bad news is that these seats are basically monopolized by people in their 70s and 80s,” South said. “The good news is by the time we get to 2018, it’s going to be a whole new political world.”

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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