Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher has resigned to take a position in the State Department, and a special election for her East Bay District is scheduled for September 1st. The race has at least four serious candidates – Mark DeSaulnier, John Garamendi, Joan Buchanan and Anthony Woods – which makes it an interesting race. If no candidate in the crowded field gets a majority of the vote, the state will schedule a run-off election.
But due to an unfair loophole in state law, only one of the viable candidates will be in that run-off – because all four are Democrats. In other words, one candidate can barely finish first on September 1st with a plurality (e.g., 30% of the vote in a low-turnout election) – and would be all but assured a seat in Congress. Garamendi, in particular, stands to gain the most from that process – due to his superior name-recognition. Which is perverse, because an open seat should be an ideal opportunity for voters to have a real choice – and that may not happen.
Assessing the Crowded Field
Ellen Tauscher has represented California’s 10th Congressional District since 1996 – after unseating Republican incumbent Bill Baker. The suburban district, which includes most of Contra Costa County, was conservative leaning at the time – but the last ten years of demographic change plus re-districting have made it a safe blue seat. It may not be as liberal as Berkeley or San Francisco, but we all know the winner will be a Democrat.
State Senator Mark DeSaulnier, who represented the area in the State Assembly and on the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors, was the front-runner – until Garamendi stepped into the race. DeSaulnier has Tauscher’s endorsement, along with Congressman George Miller and many labor unions in the district – as well as the UNITE HERE State Council. He was once a Republican (but a Massachusetts Republican in the classic liberal mold), and by all accounts is well liked among local Democratic activists.
Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi was running for Governor, but dropped out when he saw his campaign going nowhere. He has a long political career that started in Calaveras County, and his home in Walnut Grove straddles the border between the 10th and 3rd Congressional Districts. I have criticized him for running in the wrong district, but he is in the race to stay. His platform includes the environment and health care, and his endorsements range from the California Nurses Association to ex-President Bill Clinton.
State Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan is the only prominent woman in the race, and is counting on support from groups like EMILY’s List. A single parent and former San Ramon School Board member, Buchanan has prioritized education as a top issue in her campaign. Wrapping up the field, Anthony Woods is a 28-year-old openly gay African-American Iraq War veteran – who was discharged because of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He was born and raised in the district, went to the Harvard Kennedy School and is running on his biography.
Musical Chairs and Political Futures
A common criticism of both DeSaulnier and Buchanan is that they are current members of the state legislature. If one of them wins, their seat would become vacant until the state can hold another special election to replace them. California is in a complete fiscal meltdown, and some have argued that the two-thirds requirement for passing a state budget means we can’t afford to lose a single Democrat in Sacramento – even temporarily. It’s not likely to affect how average voters judge the candidates, but the legislature is not very popular.
If Garamendi wins, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gets to appoint a new Lieutenant Governor – who would be a Republican. I’ve heard an interesting (but also highly speculative) theory about what would happen. Some believe he would pick State Senator Abel Maldonado – a “moderate” who represents a swing district that includes Monterey and San Luis Obispo. Which means a special election would be called, and Democrats get the opportunity of picking up a seat – inching towards a two-thirds majority. But if the Governor appoints a different Republican politician, that theory goes out the window.
If I lived in the 10th Congressional District, I would probably vote for Anthony Woods. His arrival in Congress could have the biggest impact, considering that whoever wins will be 435th in seniority. His background will prompt obvious comparisons with Obama, and the Party leaders will promote him as a “rising star.” But the criticism I’ve been told about Woods is that he has no chance of winning – and he’s more a candidate to watch for future races. I’m not sure if I believe that, as a crowded field makes the race volatile.
Woods is the only major candidate who does not support single-payer – a “deal-breaker” for many progressives (he advocates a public option plan instead.) But how much impact will a freshman member of Congress have on health care reform? Woods’ presence in Congress alone could shame the Obama Administration into repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and his views on Iraq – where he has credibility after two tours of duty – has reassured anti-war liberals like myself.
An Undemocratic State Law
The race to succeed Ellen Tauscher will be fascinating for political junkies, but it may not be a great thing for people in the 10th District. Special elections usually don’t have very good turnout, and one candidate can eke a first-place finish September 1st that will whisk them to Congress – even if most constituents would rather have someone else. State law that governs special election has a bad loophole that could disenfranchise many voters.
California Election Code Section 10706(a) reads: “if no candidate [in a special election] receives a majority of votes cast, the name of that candidate of each qualified political party who receives the most votes cast for all candidates of that party shall be placed on the special general election ballot as the candidate of that party.” In other words, a run-off won’t feature the two candidates who finished with the most votes on September 1st. It will be between the top finishers of each party. In a district where all serious candidates are Democrats, only one will actually make it to the run-off.
The law in question was written decades ago by Phil Burton, the legendary San Francisco liberal (and brother of John Burton.) At the time, special elections had no run-offs – and whoever got a simple plurality won. Republicans in liberal districts would get behind one candidate, who would finish on top ahead of a slew of Democrats. To resolve this problem, the law was changed to require a run-off between candidates of each party – if no one got a majority. But California districts today are far more partisan than they were, and it’s doubtful that Burton ever anticipated a scenario such as what we have now.
I have experienced the unforeseen consequences of this law, and am convinced it has to be changed. When I was a student at UC-Berkeley in 1998, I was a campaign volunteer for Dion Aroner – who ran for the State Senate in a special election to replace Barbara Lee (who had just been elected to Congress.) It was a solid blue district, and all three serious candidates were Democrats: Aroner and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson (who were both liberal), and Don Perata (a moderate “business” Democrat.)
With a 15% turnout, Aroner and Carson predictably split the “liberal” vote – and Perata finished on top with a mere 33% of the vote. Aroner came in a very close second (about 900 votes), but could not advance to a scheduled run-off. Instead, Perata won the run-off against a token Republican – and the Peace & Freedom Party candidate. It turned out to be a pivotal election with a big impact: Don Perata went to Sacramento, amassed power for ten years and became State Senate President. He finally retired last year, because of term limits.
I’m afraid the same scenario can play itself out here. Although DeSaulnier and Buchanan both represent the area in the state legislature, neither have high name recognition. As a rookie candidate, Anthony Woods has even less. But Garamendi is a statewide elected official – who has literally been running for Governor since 1982. Regular voters (a big chunk of the electorate in low-turnout specials) are familiar with him, while the others will struggle for attention. Garamendi just needs to come in first place with at least 25% of the vote, which he can do on name recognition alone. If he does that, he wins.
By September 2nd, we will know who is Ellen Tauscher’s replacement in Congress. We will know, even if the vast majority of District 10 voters pick another candidate. We will know, even if most constituents didn’t vote at all.