Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

California term limits revolving door often leads to Los Angeles city council

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, left, talks with Assembly member Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, at the Capitol last year.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, left, talks with Assembly member Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, at the Capitol last year.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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There's just something about serving on the Los Angeles City Council that termed-out and current state legislators covet. The money's pretty good -- it pays about $80,000 more per year than a state Assembly post. And candidates who win and get reelected can stay 12 years.

So it's perhaps no great surprise that Assembly members Bob Blumenfield, Felipe Fuentes, Mike Davis, Warren Furutani, Gil Cedillo and state Senator Curren Price have all announced they are running for city council seats.

The council is already loaded with former state legislators: Richard Alarcon, Paul Koretz, Paul Krekorian, Tony Cardenas and Herb Wesson. That's one-third of the 15-member council with Sacramento pedigrees.

This candidate boomerang effect is an unintended consequence of the 1990 voter-approved state term limits law. It imposed a lifetime limit of six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate. In June, voters tweaked the law when they approved Proposition 28. It gives legislators fewer total years in the statehouse - 12 rather than 14 - but they can spend them all in the Assembly or Senate, or a combination.

Not all running for the city council are termed out, but those seats open up only once every four years, and it can be hard to unseat an incumbent, so some are jumping in to claim a spot before term limits force them out of the legislature.

All this churn raises the question of whether the term limits law accomplished its stated goals of diversifying the legislature, reducing the power of longtime incumbents, and creating a legislature that better mirrored the population.

Thad Kousser, a political scientist at UC San Diego, says term limits did help Latino and women candidates increase their numbers in the state legislature, bring them more in line with their numbers in the population. But black politicians who had worked their way into power positions in the legislature - think of leaders like Willie Brown -- have not been replaced in the same numbers since term limits took hold.

"There was this great hope that with term limits that it would herald the day of the citizen legislature, that the person would take a turn in office and then when they were termed out, they would go back to their day job or retired once they were termed out of office," Kousser said. "That hasn't been the case."

Most of those who don't win another office take jobs in government or become lobbyists, Kousser said.

"What we've seen is that political animals don't change their stripes. Folks termed out of office, because they genuinely care about public service or just get addicted to the perks of office, want to stay in office and in California about  60 percent of them run for another office once they are termed out of Sacramento," said Kousser.

It works a bit like a conga line. Assemblyman Blumenfield is running for the city seat held by termed-out Councilman Dennis Zine. Zine's running for city controller to replace Wendy Greuel, who's also termed out. And Greuel is running for mayor now that Antonio Villaraigosa is termed out.

"Nearly everyone keeps playing a role in government, very often at the local level," said Kousser.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, who served in the Assembly, then the state Senate, and now is being termed out of the Assembly, said inexperienced legislators have hurt California.

"It has been completely disastrous," said the Los Angeles Democrat. "There is nowhere else where you would choose somebody less experienced than someone with more experience. You wouldn't do that with your dentist. You wouldn't do that with your lawyer. You wouldn't do it with your carpenter. Why do we do it in such an important endeavor as governing?"

All these state legislators running for local offices put the squeeze on local  talent coming up through L.A.'s system of commissions and neighborhood councils. So where's the political training ground?

Said Cedillo, "Ironically, it may be the state legislature."

Now with Prop. 28, those new legislators will be able to spend more time in the assembly or senate.   

Perhaps that tweak to the term limits law will slow the candidate churn.