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Californians Are Leaving Congress. What Does That Mean for the State?

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A woman stands at a podium in front of a microphone with an American flag behind her.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, speaks at a press conference on sexual harassment on Nov. 15, 2017, in Washington, D.C.  (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Central Valley Congressperson Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) this week joined two other veteran California members of Congress in announcing they would not seek reelection.

Nunes is stepping down early to take a job with former President Donald Trump's new media venture, and he does so as the Citizens Redistricting Commission is finalizing new maps that could make it harder to hold onto this job.

Also leaving Congress: Southern California Democrat Karen Bass, who is running for mayor of Los Angeles, and Bay Area incumbent Jackie Speier, who told NPR "it's time to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders."

A woman wearing a blue and grey business suit jacket and glasses stands behind a podium with a microphone in front of her with a blue flag in the background.
Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) speaks during a news conference to discuss an upcoming House vote regarding statues on Capitol Hill on July 22, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

And they might not be the last ones. So what does that loss of seniority mean for California’s clout in Washington?

"Certainly seniority is a key component of how Congress operates," Speier told KQED this week.

Seniority determines committee assignments, including the ability to chair important committees, and it means just knowing how Congress works. That’s what gets lost when a veteran legislator retires. Still, Speier said, "if you do your homework, if you're competent, if your colleagues see that you are sincere and committed, you can gain traction pretty fast."

On Monday, Speier endorsed Democratic Assemblymember Kevin Mullin to replace her. Mullin acknowledges that, if he wins, he’ll have his work cut out for him.

"There is just the basic reality when you come in as a rookie in a seniority system, you really have to work your way up that ladder. So there's no replacing Jackie immediately," he said.

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Politics, Mullin said, is the business of relationships, "the importance of in-person person-to-person communications, working with your colleagues, sort of establishing rapport with your colleagues. I've learned how to do all of that in Sacramento," Mullin said.

But Congressperson Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) disagrees that experience trumps all other attributes. Five years ago he knocked out fellow Democrat Mike Honda, an incumbent with 16 years of seniority. He says while relationships built over years of service are helpful, Congress needs more than experience, it needs fresh blood — especially now.

"Renewal, in my view, is more important than just longevity," Khanna said this week. "And I've never been of the view that you ought to just hold these seats as lifetime entitlements."

As New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has shown, even a first-year member of Congress can have an impact, especially, as Khanna notes, if they know how to win attention.

"It you're not savvy about social media, if you're not savvy about cable news, if you're not savvy about the media and mobilization, I would argue you're not going to be a very effective member of Congress," he said.

But as Speier notes, whatever influence California's congressional delegation has at the moment is mostly attributable to one person: Nancy Pelosi.

"Make no mistake about it, and she has been very judicious about using it when it was in greatest need for the region and for the state. She has always been at the forefront of protecting the interests of California. So when she decides to retire and I don't know when that will be, it will be a huge hit for our region and for the state," Speier said.

A man wearing a business suit sits at a table with a microphone in front of him and a sign that says "Nunes."
U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) testifies during a Republican-led forum on the origins of the COVID-19 virus at the U.S. Capitol on June 29, 2021. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Even with veterans departing, California’s congressional delegation will still have plenty of clout — including Bakersfield House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and in the Bay Area members like Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), Zoe Lofgren (D-San José) and Anna Eshoo (D-Atherton). Nor does it hurt to have Vice President Kamala Harris, most recently a U.S. senator from California, keeping an eye out for her home state's interests.

But the prospect of Democrats losing the House majority next year and redistricting forcing them to run in new, less friendly districts might see yet another wave of retirements in the not-too-distant future.


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