With 12 years to serve, new California lawmakers staying put

Al Muratsuchi took a traditional path to the state Capitol, serving as a prosecutor and school board trustee before his election two years ago to the Assembly. When Democratic Sen. Ted Lieu announced his bid for Congress, Muratsuchi considered launching a campaign for the seat covering coastal Los Angeles.

But the Torrance Democrat passed up the opening, as did fellow freshman Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, who also lives in Lieu’s district.

“I wanted to stick it out with my constituents in the South Bay instead of jumping offices,” Muratsuchi said in a recent interview. “We all get one vote in the state Legislature. We all get paid the same. And we all have an equal opportunity to make an impact on state policy.”

Under voter-approved Proposition 28, first-term lawmakers may spend a dozen years in one chamber, down from 14 years split between the two houses under the original term limit law enacted in 1990.

“I can say that Proposition 28 and the opportunity to be able to serve for 12 years in the state Assembly, was a big part of my decision to continue to serve in the Assembly rather than seek the Senate seat,” Muratsuchi said.

For this year’s election – just the first regularly scheduled vote since the rule was changed – at least 15 freshmen declined the chance for an open Senate seat, staying put rather than losing seniority, the benefit of relationships and knowledge of the lower house.

Eric Jaye, a Democratic political consultant, said he’s talked with many of the first-term lawmakers and believes the measure is reducing the influence that many say lobbyists and their employers gained in the Capitol when term limits began. Freshmen lawmakers now are more focused on learning policy and getting ahead in the Assembly rather than finding a Senate or congressional seat to seek, he said.

“There are so many so-called ‘reforms’ that do so little,” he said. “This is already one that you can see is making a difference.”

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, is among the freshmen who could have challenged for a seat in the upper house when Democratic Sen. Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa decided against seeking a second term. Levine said he might have considered running for the Senate seat “in another era,” but added, “we have this refreshing opportunity to roll up our sleeves, focus on policy matters and really think about how to set the state forward.”

“The time for office-shopping is over, and legislators and voters alike are focused on doing their job well,” he said.

Criticized as a “dishonest” and “deceitful” attempt to gut voter-approved term limits, the measure was nonetheless overwhelmingly approved by voters in June 2012. Supporters argued it would help reduce time in office and purge the Legislature of career politicians more focused on campaigning for their next office than doing their jobs.

“What I find fascinating about this is there’s these two opposite justifications for the initiative: to reduce the amount of time they spend and to increase the amount of time they spend,” said Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento. “And, in some ways, it accomplishes both.”

Although ending hopscotching was a key argument, the selling point was reducing the overall number of years to 12 from 14, he said.

California voters believed they were supporting a measure that primarily strengthened term limits, said Jon Fleischman, a prominent conservative blogger who opposed Proposition 28. He said lawmakers will end up serving longer because a large number of Assembly members under the old system never advanced to the Senate.

“At the end of the day, if you want the voters to be happy with Prop. 28, you’d have to show to them that legislators are serving less time in Sacramento,” Fleischman said. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”

Meantime, Levine said he’s gotten the sense members are investing more in relationships with one another while avoiding opportunities to score political points. Lawmakers know they could be serving together for more than a decade. On one of his bills, GOP members refrained from speaking out despite opposing the legislation. When his fellow Democrats balked at one of his other bills in committee, Levine got votes from two Republicans to move it forward.

“That for me was a very early lesson for not taking my Republican colleagues for granted,” he said.

The resentment between parties on everything from routine proposals to protracted budget fights was often hard to process for Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, who served as acting secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs before his election to state office in 2012.

“The rancor between the Republicans and the Democrats was just tireless,” said Chávez, R-Oceanside, who declined the prospect of succeeding Sen. Mark Wyland, R-Solana Beach. “Today, you don’t see that with the freshmen. There’s a real effort to try to solve problems.”

Several lawmakers pointed to growing public support for the institution before a trio of lawmaker-involved scandals gripped the Senate. As the last Field Poll began, respondents expressed overall satisfaction with the Legislature for the first time in more than a decade. Even with the criminal charges against Democratic Sen. Leland Yee eroding net approval, a majority still reported backing their own lawmakers.

Before voters first approved term limits, a seat in the upper house was seen as superior. Senators have roughly twice the number of constituents and a larger staff. Only half as often must they mount expensive and time-consuming re-election efforts. And with half the number of members, 40 instead of 80, it’s generally easier to push through legislative priorities and build a profile to seek statewide office.

With the change in term limits, however, the overall reward of winning a Senate seat often isn’t worth the risk of losing and being out of the Legislature altogether, said Tim Clark, a Republican political consultant.

That was the possibility facing Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, who some expected to jump at the new 28th Senate District.

“As I told them, I just got to the Assembly,” she said. “I thought that was kind of abandoning the people who elected me because there are different cities in that district.”

Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, said many also expected her to run when a Senate seat became available. Brown said she prayed before concluding she would rather pursue another two-year term than aim to take over for Sen. Norma Torres, a Pomona Democrat running for Congress.

Brown, who with her husband founded a weekly community newspaper, said she has enjoyed bolstering ties with mayors, council members and police chiefs.

“I think this puts me closer to the people. I like the fact that I can talk to my voters and every two years they can tell me what I did well and what I can improve,” she said. “At this point, until something happens that is really unforeseen, I mean completely unforeseen, I would stay right where I am at.”