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February 21, 2014
Editorial notebook: California loses leadership and influence with congressional retirements

George_Miller.jpg(Feb. 21 - By Mariel Garza)

It has been a cold winter back east, but surely not bad enough to prompt California's shivering congressmen and women to call it a career.

Yet, an inordinate amount of them have decided that after this year, they're done. Since the chilly beginning of 2014, five representatives have said they won't run for re-election; a sixth made that announcement last year.

That means more than 10 percent of California's congressional delegation is turning over this year, not including any yet to announce their retirement, or to be indicted, lose re-election, or die.

It's the second round of big congressional changes since the 2012 elections saw 11 new representatives elected. But that's not unusual in presidential election years, and it was exacerbated by the dramatic redrawing of political districts in 2011.

It's appealing to come up with an overarching reason for this current mass departure. The hyperpartisanship in Congress must be really bad. Or the coast-to-coast commute has grown intolerable. It's become a soul-sucking job in a legislative body that most Americans revile, rather than revere. But none of those appears to be the reason.

Republicans John Campbell of Irvine, Howard "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita and Gary Miller of San Bernardino are stepping down for various reasons, none of which have to do with being members of the minority party in D.C., because they are not.

Campbell said he never wanted to be a career politician. McKeon told Politico that having to step down as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee next year influenced his decision. Miller likely read the blue writing on the wall of his rapidly Latino-fying district.

For Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod of Chino, the bitter partisanship didn't drive her out after one unremarkable term; she decided to run for another political seat with a much better commute, San Bernardino County supervisor.

Democrats George Miller of Martinez and Henry Waxman of Beverly Hills don't have to explain why they are leaving after 40-year careers.

The loss of these last two will hurt California the most.

George Miller and Waxman are not just long-serving congressmen. They are political icons who defined a political generation as part of the Watergate class in 1974. In Waxman's case, he bestowed a certain respectability on Southern California it rarely enjoys east of the Colorado River.

Until last month, I was on the editorial board for a group of Los Angeles-area newspapers, including the L.A. Daily News and the Daily Breeze, which circulated in Waxman's district. I was lucky to have the chance to talk to the legendary congressman in the odd endorsement meetings. I say odd because Waxman is an old-school politician, which is to say he doesn't do much self-promotion and therefore keeps a low media profile in his district.

But then he didn't have to work it. Waxman came of political age at a time when people actually could run on their records, not on personality or appearance. And his record has been unbeatable, including the Clean Air Act and the Affordable Care Act, just to name two landmark laws.

With due respect to the folks running to replace Miller and Waxman, they are going to be pale replacements who can't hope to have the same influence back east.

"I can't compare myself to Henry Waxman," Ted Lieu told me last week when I asked whether he could fill Waxman's shoes. "I don't think anyone can. But someone needs to succeed him."

That's true, and it may be him. Or not. The state senator representing the South Bay area of Los Angeles County has got a tough primary election that includes two candidates who are something like celebrities - author Marianne Williamson and radio host Matt Miller - as well as Wendy Greuel, a former L.A. city controller and councilwoman who lost a mayoral bid last year.

This is the second recent blow to Southern California's political clout. Another congressional powerhouse, Rep. Howard Berman of Van Nuys, got edged out in a bitter fight with fellow Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman in the 2012 election. Like Waxman, Berman was a leader, a statesman, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who made things happen at a national and international level. Alas, his downfall was that his opponent spent less time in Washington getting things done and more time in the San Fernando Valley wooing voters.

This turnover, as historic as it is, doesn't have to be a terrible thing for California.

That's the view of another newbie representative, Elk Grove Democratic Rep. Ami Bera. He's hopeful about the new generation, such as himself, who are more interested in solving problems than playing political games.

He's got a point; new blood, fresh eyes and different ideas might not be bad for a House mired in politics.