Elections with a twist
Term-limits initiative has local Assembly candidates hedging their bets
How weird can elections be? Those coming up next year may take the cake. Consider, for instance, what’s happening among the local Republican candidates for state Assembly.
The races in Districts 2 and 3 are wide open because the incumbents, Republicans Doug LaMalfa and Rick Keene, respectively, are being termed out after six years in office. As a result, several Republican candidates have tossed their names in the ring to run in the conservative districts.
But there’s a twist: LaMalfa and Keene may not be termed out after all.
That’s because 2008 is like no other election year in California. First off, there will be three elections, not the usual two held during an even-numbered year. Last year the state Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to institute a new presidential primary on Feb. 5, separate from the primary for state offices on June 3. The two primaries will be followed by a general election on Nov. 4.
Second, there will be an initiative on that Feb. 5 ballot to change the state’s term-limits law. If it passes, termed-out members of the state Assembly and Senate like Keene and LaMalfa will be able to run again. In that case, all the candidates now lining up to replace them will probably drop out.
Right now, though, they want voters to know they’re in the game. Six months before the official February filing date, three Republicans have stepped forward in District 2, including a powerful former state senator, and two in District 3. (Only one Democrat has announced his candidacy, which is no surprise in such heavily Republican districts.)
The would-be candidates have put up campaign Web sites, hustled big-name endorsements and started raising the oodles of moola they’ll need to run. But it may all be for naught.
Currently, terms are limited to six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate, with a total of 14 years of service in both houses allowed. The proposed initiative would reduce the total years to 12, but would allow them to be served all in one house.
“This initiative allows for flexibility. The goal is to build stability in each house and bring greater expertise to the Legislature,” Richard Stapler, communications director for the initiative, said in a phone interview.
If it passes, Keene and LaMalfa no doubt will run again—most likely unopposed. Any conservative contender would have a tough time running against an incumbent. Both men have spent the past six years forging political relationships and bulking up their campaign war chests.
The term-limits proposal has garnered 1.1 million signatures in its campaign drive, far more than it needs to make the ballot. A Field Poll in March found that 54 percent of voters would support it.
With February six months away, candidates are in limbo. They’re stepping out—but with hesitation. As we said, it’s a weird election.
Two candidates have announced for this seat, one a relative unknown dentist from Yreka named Sam Wakim, the other former state Sen. Jim Nielsen, once one of the most powerful figures in state politics.
Another candidate, Butte City rice farmer Jason Larabee, announced his candidacy earlier and received LaMalfa’s backing, but he later pulled out of the race. That decision may have had something to do with the fact that he’d spent the past two years working for Rep. John Doolittle (R-Roseville), who’s been tainted by his association with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and is under investigation by the FBI.
Larrabee is now endorsing Nielsen.
Nielsen is no stranger to scandal, either. As a Northern California state senator from 1978 to 1990, Nielsen was one of the most powerful lawmakers in the Legislature, but he also was a focus of controversy.
For one thing, he lived in Woodland but listed his address as Rohnert Park, outside of his district. In a major exposé in its Oct. 25, 1990, issue, the Chico News & Review’s editor at the time, George Thurlow, exposed this discrepancy, as well as numerous other ethical dilemmas facing Nielsen.
Most significant was the fact that while on the payroll for a Woodland pesticide and fertilizer company, he worked to kill pesticide reform legislation. Nielsen was also accused of using his state office staff for campaign work, paying them consulting fees and bonuses out of taxpayer dollars.
Ultimately, Nielsen lost his seat in 1990 when Democrats redrew his district in a way that favored them. Gov. Pete Wilson then appointed him to a position on the Board of Prison Terms, where he served seven years.
Nielsen also led the California Alliance to Protect Private Property Rights and has long been a regular columnist with the Woodland Daily Democrat. LaMalfa has endorsed him.
Calls made to Nielsen’s campaign staff were not returned.
Wakim hopes to counter Nielsen’s political clout and name recognition by picking up the preponderance of votes in the northern part of the district, which runs from Yolo County north to Siskiyou County and the Oregon border. The last successful legislator to come from the northern area was Randolph Collier, the so-called “Silver Fox,” a Democratic senator who last served in 1970.
Calling himself a “citizen legislator,” Wakim says he’s not looking to spend 30 years in politics the way his opponent has. “I want to show that someone can be an average Joe, make a run for the Assembly, serve their time, and go back to their normal life,” he explained.
A self-employed dentist, Wakim has served on North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and the governmental affairs council of the California Dental Association. But he says that his experience as an “average” citizen is what is truly needed in the Assembly.
“I firmly believe our founding fathers wanted us to be citizen legislators,” he said. “They never envisioned someone jumping from one six-figure salary to another that is supported by taxpayers.”
Wakim also says that while Nielsen may have key political contacts, the majority of his endorsements come from outside the district. Wakim says his endorsements come from people who have lived and worked in the district, just as he has.
“I know the North State because I’ve lived here,” said Wakim. “I don’t believe someone who has lived and worked in Sacramento the majority of his life can relate.”
The three Republicans running to replace Rick Keene are Sue Horne, a Nevada County supervisor; Dan Logue, a supervisor in Yuba County; and Jack Lee, a walnut farmer who lives in Chico. On the Democratic side, Magalia resident Mickey Harrington, president of the Butte Glenn Labor Central Council, is the lone candidate. Harrington ran against Keene in 2006 and lost by a wide margin.
The biggest contenders are arguably Horne and Logue, whose campaign bank accounts are bulging with financial contributions. Both candidates have lent themselves $100,000, and between them they have raised almost $600,000. Logue has an edge on Horne, however, with almost $40,000 more in contributions.
“It just goes to show how much support I have in the business community,” he said. “My stance on protecting individual liberties is something that they value.”
Logue says he believes state government has turned “hostile” toward the business community, “overwhelming” it with regulations and laws. “We’re losing our individual rights.”
Logue, who owns a real estate company, says his extensive work in the business sector sets him apart from other candidates.
When it comes to standing apart, however, Jack Lee may be the best example. For one thing, he has decided not to accept financial contributions. “It’s just not right taking their money,” he explained.
Aware of the popularity of the term-limits initiative, Lee said he didn’t want to take financial contributions for a campaign that could end up squashed. If the initiative passes, he intends to drop his effort and back Keene. He has urged the other Republican candidates to do the same and says he has also asked them to halt fund-raising.
“It would just end up being a waste of money,” said Lee. “It’s not fair to the public.”
Lee said he was frustrated with politicians’ obsession with money: “All money says is ‘I’ve got connections.’ I’d sooner lose on principle than on how much is in my campaign bank account.”
Horne declined to be interviewed. A representative from her campaign management firm, Johnson Clark Associates, said she would not be available until after the February filing date.