Since mid-October, Brian C. Johnson has spent evenings and weekends meeting with voters in a Los Angeles-area Assembly district, seeking endorsements and raising money for an election that is more than a year away.
But it's not the prospect of such a long campaign that poses the biggest challenge for charter schools operator Johnson and the nearly 150 others who already have filed preliminary papers to run for California legislative or congressional offices in 2012. The hard part is not knowing what the districts will be until a citizen commission finishes drawing new boundaries this summer.
"It's strange that all these people are trying to promote themselves to run for districts that won't exist" by election time, said redistricting expert Tony Quinn.
He and others familiar with the once-a-decade redistricting process expect that urban coastal areas, including Los Angeles County, which according to last year's census lost population, will give up at least one Assembly, state Senate and congressional district to areas to the east, which gained people. Political districts must by law have substantially equal numbers of residents.
This year's redistricting carries heightened uncertainty because California voters took the job away from legislators, who previously drew boundaries that protected incumbents. Observers expect at least some changes in every district. Some legislators and would-be candidates could find themselves without a district to run in, or could be included in the same district as another lawmaker, or could face less favorable registration and demographics.
"It's more of a wild card than it's ever been," said Los Angeles Democratic consultant Larry Levine. "I've had a parade of people coming into my office and wanting to talk to me about running and I always ask them, 'Where?'"
A few candidates have hedged their bets by signing up in two places at once, including Assemblyman Stephen Knight (R-Palmdale), who filed intention statements in both his own district and the one in the state Senate recently won by fellow Republican Sharon Runner of neighboring Lancaster. He can pivot later to whichever ends up the better fit for him.
Many candidates and strategists say the advantages of getting in now — raising money and gaining early recognition — outweigh the downside of seeing the district redrawn unfavorably.
"I did pause a little," said longtime Pasadena Councilman Chris Holden of his decision to run for the seat being vacated next year by termed-out Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge.) "But you want to reach out to as many people as you possibly can…. Developing relationships, … getting to know [other] communities, takes time."
Portantino, who has filed paperwork and begun raising money in anticipation of running against Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), said he would probably reconsider if the redrawn district includes more of San Bernardino County than foothill and San Gabriel Valley communities.
"But my anticipation is that there is going to be an L.A. County, San Gabriel Valley district, and I'm going to be prepared to run for it," Portantino said.
And Republican Abel Maldonado, who was appointed lieutenant governor last year and then lost the office to Democrat Gavin Newsom in November, is campaigning for a seat held by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), whose heavily gerrymandered district is among those expected to change substantially.
Maldonado, a former state senator from Santa Maria who helped usher in the state's new "top-two" primary system — which observers say will add another element of uncertainty to next year's elections — sees no disadvantage to an early start.
"I don't know if the district will be moved north or south, and I don't know if it will be Lois Capps', but I do know my city will have a congressional district, and that's the one I will be running in," Maldonado said.
Matt Holder, a Republican strategist with the Lewis Consulting Group in Orange County, said there are some risks in declaring early. For example, if the district changes to exclude a candidate's home, prompting a contest switch, he or she could be labeled an opportunistic office-hopper.
"But you limit the downside when you just talk about what you want to do and why you're running" and avoid trashing other potential candidates, Holder said.
Johnson, the charter schools operator, said he couldn't afford waiting to see how the 42nd Assembly District would be redrawn. Three others also have begun campaigning: West Hollywood Councilman Jeffrey Prang, attorney Andrew Lachman of Los Angeles and San Fernando Chamber of Commerce executive David R. Hernandez Jr. of Valley Village.
Johnson, executive director of the Larchmont Schools in Los Angeles and West Hollywood had raised $113,000 by the end of last year. Among his biggest contributors were former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and philanthropist Eli Broad, both backers of charter schools as tools of education reform.
"I feel California is at a crossroads," Johnson said. "I've been working in this community for years, and now that there's an open seat, I feel the stakes are too high" not to run now. The seat he wants is now occupied by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, a Los Angeles Democrat who will be termed out next year.
And if the district is redrawn out from under him?
"I'm going to cross that bridge when I come to it," Johnson said.