Vacant seats? Let the governor fill ‘em

SACRAMENTO — Senate leader Darrell Steinberg says he has seen enough. He wants to rid California of incessant special elections to fill vacancies in the Legislature.

The elections interrupt the legislative process, he asserts, and they bleed local taxpayers — roughly $1 million each time some lawmaker jumps ship, which has been increasingly often.

Let the governor fill vacant seats and be done with it, the Sacramento Democrat contends.



If it were possible, I’d order lawmakers to stop the music, grab a seat and stay put. This musical chairs game is too expensive for the adults, the taxpayers. No more switching offices in midterm.

But forbidding politicians to run for another office is probably unconstitutional. So if they do bail in midterm, just let the governor choose their replacement.

Like the governor is allowed to do when there’s a vacancy in a statewide office. Or when there’s an opening on a county board of supervisors. Or a U.S. senator quits or dies.

If there’s a vacant seat in the U.S. House delegation, the U.S. Constitution decrees that there must be a special election. But there’s no such federal mandate for replacing a state legislator. Only a state law.

“The cost of these special elections and the delays for months at a time compels us to look at different ways to fill the vacancies,” Steinberg says. “It would be much better to have the governor make the appointment.”

Count up the legislative defections in the past year alone: There have been 10.

The latest is Sen. Bill Emmerson (R-Hemet), who’s departing Sacramento because his “passion has waned” for legislating.

So there’ll be a special election to replace him. Riverside and San Bernardino counties estimate it will cost residents $1.1 million


There was one special election last week in the San Fernando Valley to replace former Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, who jumped to the Los Angeles City Council.

The heavily favored Democratic candidate, Matt Dababneh, barely beat the underdog Republican, although Dems enjoy a 2-to-1 registration advantage. The close race probably resulted from a very low voter turnout — less than 12% — which usually helps Republicans and is habitual with special elections.

That’s another reason to junk them: Few voters even bother to participate.

There’ll also be a special election Dec. 3 in Los Angeles to replace former Democratic Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, who was elected to the Senate in a Sept. 17 special.


That’s a common scenario: A senator — such as Democrat Curren Price — wins an L.A. City Council seat, where the $180,000 pay is nearly double the Legislature’s. Then there’s a special election — won by Mitchell — to fill the Senate vacancy. And that forces the Assembly special.

Another popular move: A state senator captures a U.S. House seat. Then an Assembly member fills the Senate vacancy. And yet another special election is called to plug the Assembly opening.

It’s not only costly but also confusing.

A big plus for a politician playing this type of musical chairs is he can run for another seat without giving up his current one, unless he wins. That’s called a free ride.


These political animals perpetually are looking for greener pastures.

Steinberg got the bug to eliminate special elections after one Democratic senator, Michael Rubio of Bakersfield, suddenly bolted for another kind of greener pasture. He resigned to take a big-bucks government affairs job with Chevron.

A close friend of Steinberg, former longtime legislator Gary Hart from Santa Barbara, began working on the Senate leader. A good-government policy wonk, Hart is an outspoken critic of special elections.

Eleven states allow governors to name the new legislator. Some permit it by county boards or political parties. Only half require special elections.


In California, Hart says, “These seats lay vacant for months. There’s a long period when constituents don’t have any representative. The governor could make the appointments expeditiously.”

Exactly how, Hart doesn’t really care. And Steinberg hasn’t decided.

Steinberg is toying with requiring confirmation by the house that has the vacancy. Currently, when a governor nominates a replacement for statewide office, his choice must be confirmed by the Legislature. But that tends to drag out into long games-playing.

Just let the governor handle it. Then make the replacement face voters at the next regular state election.


Special elections “are an epidemic,” Hart says. “And it’s going to get worse.”

Why? “Being in the Legislature is not as attractive a job as it used to be.”

No question. Pay has been reduced, pensions have been eliminated, car leases junked and term limits imposed, although they recently were loosened.

“What I feel most strongly about,” Hart says, “is that all these special elections mean that legislative leaders have to spend more time raising money and doing politics. There’s less time for policy work, less time for compromise.


“Elections by their very nature are the opposite of compromise. Campaigns are an important part of democracy, but they ought not to be continuous.”

The Dec. 3 special election will be the 13th this year, counting primaries and runoffs. Others are on the horizon for next year.

This may be the first legislative session ever when there always has been at least one vacancy.

But there are some major political problems in getting rid of special elections. First, the Legislature would need to pass a constitutional amendment by a two-thirds vote. And politicians tend to favor the status quo.


Even if lawmakers did pass it, citizens would need to sign off at the ballot. And that’d be a hard sell. Californians love their vote, even if it’s expensive and they don’t always use it.