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Flurry of Special Elections Opens Doors for New Wave of California Lawmakers

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A woman wearing glasses and a yellow dress stands outside.
Suisun City Mayor Lori Wilson, who is the author of Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Before she made her first run for office in 2010, Lori Wilson was preparing for life in the pulpit: She was licensed and ordained, and thought she would eventually pastor a church.

Instead, she jumped into a different calling: a career in local government, serving as a city councilmember and now mayor of Suisun City, in Solano County.

"It's still, you know, it's serving people," Wilson said. "It's really genuinely caring for people because you can't serve and make decisions, policy ordinances, legislation without caring about people."

Now, Wilson is running unopposed for California's 11th Assembly District in an April 5 special election to replace Democrat Jim Frazier, who resigned from the Legislature in December, citing a desire to pursue new job opportunities.

It's one of four elections taking place that day across the state, the result of a flurry of lawmakers leaving office before their terms were up. For counties, the vacancy elections can add big costs and draw low voter interest. But others see the turnover in the Legislature as a priceless opportunity to bring more diverse leaders to Sacramento.

"When we look at the policies coming out of the state, if we want to see better ones, if we want to see ones that affirm everyone in the state — and we are a diverse state — then we need diverse voices there," said Wilson, the first Black woman to serve as mayor in Solano County history.

The combination of new political districts taking effect this year and looming term limits for many lawmakers in 2024 has led dozens of California legislators to pass on seeking reelection.

Some, like former Assemblymembers Frazier, Lorena Gonzalez and Autumn Burke, abruptly resigned, triggering the April 5 special elections. Voters in the Central Valley's 22nd Congressional District also will head to the polls that day, to pick a replacement for former Congressmember Devin Nunes, who stepped down from office in January.

All three outgoing Assemblymembers quickly endorsed potential successors, and Democratic political consultant Andrew Acosta said voters are unlikely to show much interest in who takes the seats.

"I have to imagine not a ton of people are paying attention to a special election Assembly race, with everything that's going on from ... Ukraine to March Madness," said Acosta.

In Contra Costa County, where voters along Highway 4 will cast ballots in the election to replace Frazier, election officials are projecting turnout at around 35% of registered voters. That's in line with most special legislative elections over the last two years, despite the state's new practice of sending every registered voter a ballot in the mail by default.

But even in a sleepy election, the cost for counties can add up: The 11th Assembly District vote will cost Contra Costa $1 million, said Tommy Gong, deputy county clerk-recorder, although half the cost will be covered by leftover money granted by the state for last year's gubernatorial recall election.

“Unfortunately, during these type of legislative vacancy elections, pretty much the respective counties bear the cost of the election," said Gong. Due to the nature of special elections, local governments do not plan for them in their budgets.

The off-cycle elections also caught many political hopefuls off guard and led some candidates to launch campaigns without sufficient preparation, said Bill Wong, former political adviser to the Assembly Democrats.

"They ended up running for office because it’s going to be an opportunity that they can’t miss out on," Wong told KQED's Political Breakdown. "But they’re also, when I talk to a lot of candidates, they were not really ready for what it meant to be running from city council to an Assembly race.”

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The high-cost, low-profile scramble of many special elections has led some to question whether the state should devise a new way to handle legislative vacancies.

"Ideally, voters and lawmakers would embrace a new system to reduce the frequency of special elections," the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote in December. "That could be accomplished by extending the time an office can remain vacant, or allowing a legislative seat to be filled by appointment, as half the states do."

But others see the upcoming votes as an opportunity to make California's Legislature better reflect the people it represents.

Melanie Ramil, executive director of Emerge California, viewed the special elections as a chance to further her organization's mission to recruit and train Democratic women to run for office.

"We knew that this was coming," said Ramil. "The combination of redistricting, retirement and term limits —  we have been anticipating this for years.”

Heading into this year, roughly a third of state legislators were women. Ramil sees the flood of open seats as an opening to change that.

"I think what we're seeing with the Great Resignation taking place in the Capitol is that it's really our great opportunity," Ramil said, "one, to close the gender gap that we've seen in the Legislature, and two, to give California the opportunity to be led by those who reflect their communities that look like us."

Ramil said Emerge has trained over 800 women over the years to run for elected office in California, including Lori Wilson.

The Suisun City mayor has been in city government for more than a decade, worked as a finance director for two homebuilding companies, and oversees regional air quality policy on the local air district's board of directors.

"I had been a local leader now for 12 years," Wilson said. "And it's like, if people like me don't run, who will?"


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