GOLIS: A tough week for some incumbents

  • Assembly member Michael Allen listens to Bill Herms, Deputy Director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, during a Joint Oversight Hearing on the Impacts and Status of State Park Closures in Sacramento on Tuesday, November 1, 2011.

If you want to know why political insiders fought new election reforms in California, you could ask Assemblyman Michael Allen. Or congressmen Pete Stark and Howard Berman.

Under the election rules that existed before this year, all three incumbents would be gathering with friends this weekend to celebrate victories in Tuesday's elections.

Instead, Allen, the former Santa Rosan, appears to be on his way to losing his North Bay Assembly seat, and Stark and Berman have already lost their congressional seats. As evidence of a political shake-up, consider this: Combined, Stark and Berman served 70 years in the House of Representatives.

Once upon a time, an incumbent almost never lost an election in California. This arrangement worked OK so long as voters were happy with the work product.

But the time came when voters weren't happy with government and incumbents kept winning anyway. Then came the revelation: Incumbents win because the rules are stacked in their favor.

Voters responded by changing the rules. This was the first election season in which districts were drawn by a citizens' commission, not incumbents, and this was the first election season in which the top-two vote getters in the June primary, regardless of party, advanced to the November general election.

Some people who aren't incumbents also dislike this new primary system. Don Sebastiani, the Sonoma winemaker and a GOP assemblyman in the 1980s, told Staff Writer Guy Kovner last week that Democrat-vs.-Democrat elections in November remind him of "the Soviet politburo."

Even when one party was dominant, Sebastiani said, he liked the "competition of ideas" provided by a contest between a Republican and a Democrat.

Like them or not, what is not in doubt is that the new rules are changing the landscape for incumbents, especially in districts where one party enjoys an overwhelming edge in registration.

In last week's election, incumbents Allen, Stark and Berman were all Democrats facing opposition from other Democrats. (The Sacramento Bee counted 28 same-party elections in California on Tuesday.)

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