Dan Walters

Opinion: A California congressional seat is a ticket to obscurity

In most states, being elected to Congress is a big political deal – a major step up the political ladder to higher office.

In California, it’s pretty much a political dead end.

While Barbara Boxer may have traded her congressional seat for one in the U.S. Senate, she’s a very rare exception.

It’s been more than 40 years since a previous California congressional member stepped up from the House to the Senate (John Tunney, 1970), and none has become governor.

The reason? Simple arithmetic.

Most states have, at most, a handful of congressional members; therefore, each represents a substantial chunk of a state’s population.

Arizona has a nine-member congressional delegation, for example, which is just about the national per-state average.

Nevada has just four in its delegation and Oregon five. Alaska has just one who represents the entire state.

However, California has by far the largest congressional delegation at 53 members, and that means each represents just 1.9 percent of the state’s residents.

That’s why, once elected, California’s congressional members generally stay put until they die or retire. Their only paths to power are within the House itself, with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco being examples.

Those who do not, or cannot, play the inside game are stuck, destined to become political asterisks – even those who enjoyed some attention in their pre-congressional careers.

Two examples are Democrat John Garamendi and Republican Tom McClintock, who represent districts on the periphery of Sacramento. Both, as it happens, are facing semi-tough re-election campaigns this year after five years in Congress.

Garamendi was a state legislator, insurance commissioner and lieutenant governor before giving up his gubernatorial ambitions and settling for a congressional seat in a 2009 special election.

McClintock, during a lengthy legislative career, established himself as an often lonely critic of deficits in the state budget and took one oh-so-close stab at state controller, then ran for Congress more than 300 miles from his Southern California legislative district.

As state politicians, both garnered copious media attention; as congressmen, they are virtually invisible outside their districts. Their congressional seats became career-cappers, not steppingstones to higher office.

Many millions of dollars are being spent on California congressional races this year. A few seats may change hands. No matter what happens, however, it will not affect the balance of power in Congress, where majority Republicans are virtually certain to retain control.

Moreover, if history is any guide, those who win California congressional seats this year will quickly learn that they hold tickets to obscurity.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.