Analysis: The ethical and economic concerns over politicians seeking higher office while already serving

Former senator-now Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara left the 33rd Senate District midterm in March of 2017, after he had been reelected to the Senate just one year prior, sparking a special election this past March between 11 different candidates.

The cost to taxpayers for this special election, for which a paltry 6.8% of voters came out to engage? $2.9 million.

That then led to a run-off between 1st District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, re-elected to that district last year, and Cudahy Councilman Jack M. Guerrero, who was just re-elected to the Cudahy City Council last year.

The cost to taxpayers for this special election, of which a disheartening 8% of voters turned out? Another $2.9 million. Yes, another $2.9 million was spent and 29,163 voters out of a lot of 426,703 turned out to express their view.

With Gonzalez now senator, we will have a special election for the 1st District on Tuesday, having given the eight candidates running for the seat a disheartening six months to prepare and execute their entire campaign.

This election will likely cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars if we are to use Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell as an example: After promising the 4th District that he would not leave midterm after running for a third term as a write-in, he did just that in 2013; the subsequent special election, which gave Councilman Daryl Supernaw his current seat, cost the city $175,000.

And beyond these economic concerns, there are questions that span ethics and civic obligations: Can politicians simultaneously run a life-overtaking campaign while overseeing and already serving an existing office? Should there be consequences for politicians who seek to do so? And are voters partially to blame for the system we’ve created?

Who’s to blame? No one and everyone

In the case of Gonzalez and Guerrero, they had just five months to prepare and execute their initial campaigns with just a couple of months to campaign during the run-off; it would be difficult to believe that they were fully engaged with the districts they originally swore to oversee while also cramming in a new campaign that covers an area far beyond their districts. Questioning if Lara had the ability to do the same is even more noteworthy since his election to Insurance Commissioner  required a commitment to statewide campaigning, rendering him mostly absent in both his community and seat.

This isn’t just a local, smaller office issue; it runs all the way to the top: Former Sen. John McCain, who passed away in 2018, had missed more than half of the votes in the 110th Congress in 2007 when he ran against former President Barack Obama, who missed a third of the votes cast when he was an Illinois senator while also campaigning. (His running mate, former Vice President Joe Biden, also missed a third of the votes while representing Delaware in the Senate.) Former Sen. Chris Dodd in his failed campaign for president during that same period? He actually moved to Iowa to focus on his presidential bid while apparently claiming to still serve Connecticut a thousand miles away.

Some places—Arizona and Georgia, for example—address this issue by having “resign to run” clauses: candidates must resign from their current post if they seek higher office. This appeals to voters because, should they lose the higher office, they aren’t immediately granted their existing seat; there is, in a sense, some shame thrown onto the politician.

But ambition already has a price and we, as voters, have assigned that price by having partially created this problem via term limits. Politics, like any other profession, is a career for some—and with the imposition of term limits and the consistent need of voters to have a say, it is only natural that politicians seek higher office, and special elections take place.

“Society has deeply changed in terms of employment and careers,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at CSULA. “As corporations and employers began to shift away from the idea that their workers have a longtime career possibility, workers themselves altered their behavior. A career is no longer guaranteed—and there should be no exception for politicians.”

Perhaps most poignant is the fact that, as Sonenshein points out, there is a price for the ambition of politicians. Should they lose, they have the uncomfortable task of returning to the office as a loser where voters simply don’t want them after they felt abandoned in the first place.

“To say there is no risk for the politician seeking higher office midterm is to play naive,” Sonenshein said. “Voters think less of you if you lose—and this is on top of the fact that politicians have to play a very careful game: On one hand, it would be detrimental for those seeking a career in politics to not look for higher office. On the other hand, you can’t be a politician whose eyes are constantly wandering. You can’t just sit in the council chambers not caring and hoping for a better job. There is risk in all this.”

Voters helped to create that risk and, in turn, helped to create the cost behind these seemingly constant special elections. We instituted term limits to prevent life-long politicians (outside of the national House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate) and, with that, somewhat forced politicians to be on the constant lookout for another job.

But even if California or municipalities were to enact some type of “resign to run” ordinances, it would still result in the same endgame: a costly special election.

Society has changed—and so should our system

We could, for example, have someone appoint an interim when these vacancies pop up—like when a governor appoints a county supervisor should a seat become vacant midterm or, on a much smaller level, when the mayor here in Long Beach appoints an interim person to oversee the office until the special election itself. We have, historically speaking, scoffed at that practice as undemocratic.

We want a say (and we should have a say) but that say comes at a price.

“Voters need to feel like their voices are being heard,” Sonenshein said. “And it is up to us, collectively, to create a system that caters to that. These midterm vacancies are going to continue popping up; they’re going to become increasingly popular—and we need to reevaluate our system because, simply put, we have too many special elections.”

The cost of excessive special elections isn’t just monetary; it exacerbates apathy among voters as paltry turnouts grow smaller with each special election.

Some options include requiring the election of an open seat to run in conjunction with the higher office election so as to keep voters incentivized to come out, but shifts like these impose consequences on the open seat, limiting campaigning for the seat and ultimately forcing voters to make a compulsive decision.

“It’s our system, it’s our democracy, it’s our representatives,” Sonenshein said. “We have to change it.”

Brian Addison is a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Support our journalism.

Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.

Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
- ADVERTISEMENT -

More