The promise of a fat paycheck would be alluring for anyone, especially a 38-year-old father of two young children, with a third on the way.
Unfortunately, the father being lured happens to be Henry T. Perea, a Democratic assemblyman who represents one of the poorest parts of Fresno County and, by extension, the state.
The young man hurriedly announced he is quitting, effective Dec. 31, rather than serve the final year of his final term in the term-limited lower house. He will leave 500,000 constituents without Assembly representation until Fresno County holds a special election to fill his seat, which could cost taxpayers anywhere from $75,000 to $530,000, depending on timing.
His decision is unfortunate for many reasons. Here are a few, as described by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research: 13 percent of the residents in his district have asthma; 24 percent have diabetes; 30 percent report having a hard time putting food on the table; and more than a third are obese. These are people who need good and dedicated representatives.
A talented legislator, Perea brought attention to people in his district, many of whom lack the basics such as clean drinking water. As the skilled leader of the pro-business wing of the Assembly Democrats, he cast votes that aligned with tobacco industry interests, and sided with the oil industry, helping to block an attempt this year by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León to force a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use.
Perea would have been a strong contender for the Fresno-area congressional seat held by Rep. Jim Costa, a fellow Democrat. By quitting at midterm, however, he all but forfeits a promising political career.
On one level, Perea’s departure is a lamentable consequence of term limits, the failed experiment brought about by an ill-considered initiative in 1990.
“Definitely term limits. That’s what it is,” Perea told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member.
Perea also saw an opportunity and took it. He did not disclose what his new job will be – that will become clear soon enough – but expects to earn far more than the $97,197 he receives as an assemblyman. Perea felt compelled to act now, rather than risk not finding work at the end of 2016, when he would have been forced by term limits to leave office.
His decision to quit early is part of a disturbing trend. Michael Rubio of Bakersfield and Bill Emmerson of Riverside County left the state Senate midterm in 2013. Rubio, a Democrat, became an executive at Chevron. Emmerson, a Republican, became an executive at the California Hospital Association.
Perea will leave office with almost $1 million in his campaign accounts. Although he can legally use that money to curry favor with legislators by contributing to their campaigns, he should use part to help Fresno County defray any special election costs, and return the rest to his donors.
Like any good father, Perea feels the need to provide for his family. That’s understandable. But serving in elective office is not just any job. It’s an honor and comes with certain obligations.
Legislators ask for votes knowing they are making two- or four-year commitments. Barring health or compelling family reasons, or perhaps election to another office, they should serve their full terms, and not use their office as a résumé builder for a lucrative consulting career.