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Think Again: California incumbents face a new challenge

It’s going to be a fun-filled year ahead as we try to figure out where we are going as a country, as a state and as local communities.

If we’ve seen any lesson thus far, even with the early Iowa Republican Caucus, every vote counts. In Iowa, Gov. Mitt Romney beat out former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum by only eight votes.

While voters could take out their economic frustrations on elected officials, I think incumbents are expecting it. But California incumbents should be especially worried because of the convergence of two rare factors.

First, congressional and state representation districts have been redrawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. This means incumbents are sorting out the composition of voters in their new districts and how that will affect their support.


The winning constituency “formula” with which incumbents retained their seats with their old districts has been remixed. They now have to understand a different mix of voters. In some cases entire districts have been eliminated.

For example, for some Burbank-area voters, this means Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman will compete for your vote because they are now running for the same district that includes part of the city. It’s like the game “musical chairs” when there is only one seat left.

This will be a heavyweight-boxing match, “Berman vs. Sherman!” Get your ringside seats. It’s going to be a hotly contested race, and your vote could make the difference.

Adam Schiff, on the other hand, will run for a new 28th Congressional District. This new district has retained an important part of Schiff’s previous 29th District with the Glendale area, but has lost key parts east and south of Pasadena, while picking up a new area stretching to Hollywood, including Little Armenia.


Similar changes have been made to state Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s 43rd District. This gives the districts more concentrated demographics and will make both seats more susceptible to competition, especially considering a second new factor.

The second political wildcard in California is that for the first time we will have “open primaries.” This new election method means the two candidates with the highest primary votes, regardless of party affiliation or primary, will move on to compete during the general election.

For example, in a district where Democrats are still the majority, such as the ones Schiff or Gatto will be running for, it could result in two Democrats competing against each other in the November election.

Democratic incumbents who used to view their party’s June primary as their main election have to deal with a new scenario — once they were past the party primary, they would coast through general elections. That may not be the case anymore.

This situation probably concerns both the Democratic and Republican parties. However, the Democratic Party machinery must be especially concerned, because with so many Democratic-leaning districts, it could result in party members breaking ranks and competing against fellow Democrats.

It has the potential to decentralize power by weakening the ability of a few party “kingmakers” to protect incumbents. But anything that weakens the ability to predetermine outcomes is a win for democracy.

Voters are dissatisfied with today’s Congress and state Legislature. Neither body can seem to make decisions until forced to at the end of their sessions — a sure sign of a broken system.

It’s not good enough anymore for an elected official to say “it’s not me, it’s them,” referring to a vague collective of their colleagues. Voters should be saying, “you” are “them.”


California residents took the first step by redrawing districts and creating open primaries. The question is whether ordinary citizens will take the second step by deciding they’ve had enough and are willing to run against career politicians.

With new factors that change the playing field, for those who think they can do a better job, it’s an opportunity to challenge the status quo.

ZANKU ARMENIAN is a resident of Glendale and a corporate communications and public affairs professional. He can be reached at