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By Ben Christopher

In summary

In a year of unprecedented turnover in the California Legislature, several lawmakers are trying to bequeath their seats to family members and staff members. Critics say they are trying to cheat the system.

Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente knew his campaign was a long shot. A 26-year-old Democrat with little electoral experience and little name recognition, he had made the decision against all odds to take on Democratic Assemblyman Tom Daly, who has represented Anaheim in the Legislature since 2012. But for Vicente, the sheer unlikelihood of his victory was part of the point. His campaign, he said, was about "changing the narrative" of what it meant to be a legitimate political player in his hometown of Santa Ana. The message he hoped to get across: "You really don't have to follow this pipeline." Then, on March 10, a day before the nomination deadline, came the double whammy. First, Daly announced that he would not seek re-election. Vicente's phone exploded. Suddenly, politicians across the district "took a second look" at his candidacy, he said. But hours later , the second blow landed: Daly District Director Avelino Valencia , a member of the Anaheim City Council, entered the race with the backing of his boss. A new presumed favorite had entered the race fresh from the "pipeline". There is nothing unusual about outgoing incumbents endorsing their potential successors. It is also not uncommon for them to support candidates with whom they share personal and professional ties. The last-minute moment of Daly's withdrawal from the race and subsequent endorsement is also a common and perfectly legal move. But this year there are many vacancies in both the Assembly and the Senate, which means there are an unusual number of outgoing lawmakers who are doing their best to bequeath their seats to their chosen successors. It's a trend that highlights how small and insular the Legislature can be. Where such behavior can cross an ethical line is when a lawmaker effectively “denies other candidates a fair chance…essentially gaming the system,” said John Pelissero, senior scholar at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Just to name a few more examples from this year:

  • Democratic state senator Bob Hertzberg was relieved of his post in the San Fernando Valley. As he is running for Los Angeles County Supervisor, he is putting his political weight behind Daniel Hertzberg. Connection: That last name is no coincidence. They are father and son.
  • In late January, Democrat Autumn Burke left the Assembly early to take a job with a lobbying firm. The next day, he endorsed Robert Pullen-Miles for his Inglewood seat. Connection: Pullen-Miles is the former Burke District Director.
  • Democratic US Representative Jackie Speier announced her retirement last November. A few weeks later, he endorsed San Mateo Assemblyman Kevin Mullin to take his place. Connection: He served as his district director, and Mullin's father was a close political ally of Speier's.
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Unfair maneuvers or elevating the most qualified?

Vicente called Anaheim's last-minute seat change a "political move" designed to "dissuade other people" from participating. Valencia, Daly's choice in the race, disagrees. He noted that his boss informed him he would not be running for re-election just a day before he went public with the news and encouraged him to run. State law grants a five-day filing extension when an incumbent doesn't apply, which also gave other interested candidates plenty of time, he added. "If you don't meet 40 people in your Assembly district to gather signatures in a day or two, then you probably shouldn't run for Assembly," he said. And although he entered the race with the support of the incumbent, he commented that his resume is not that of a typical candidate: the son of Mexican immigrants and the first person in his family to go to university, Vicente explained that he was encouraged to apply for a job in the Legislature by a professor of political science in the state of San José. The nine years he spent working as a staff member, seven of them with Daly, have prepared him "to really make a difference and get to work." Staff members often make up the list of potential new candidates, although sometimes the relationship between the incumbent and their designated replacement is less direct. Consider state Sen. Sydney Kamlager, who is now running for Congress after Democrat Karen Bass vacated the seat and is running for mayor of Los Angeles. The connection? In 2010, Holly Mitchell took Bass's place in the state Assembly with Bass's endorsement. When Mitchell made the jump from the Assembly to the state Senate three years later, he endorsed Kamlager, his former district director, to take his place. Last year, when Mitchell left the Senate to win her seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Kamlager once again stepped in for her boss with her endorsement. And who took Kamlager's seat in the Assembly? His former policy adviser, Isaac Bryan. Like Daly, Assemblyman Mark Stone, a Democrat from Santa Cruz, also waited until the last minute to tell the world that he would retire at the end of this term. He quickly endorsed former Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin. Stone's office did not respond to an interview request. Pellerin, who had planned to run in 2024 when Stone would be fired, said she was as surprised as anyone when he called her at the filing deadline to break the news. “My hope to take my time to really get to know the district and get to know everyone has been accelerated,” he added. Pellerin took issue with the idea that Stone's last-minute announcement gave him an advantage and didn't give other potential challengers time to launch their campaigns. “There is no legal requirement that someone has to announce their retirement in time,” he explained. "I just got that call, so I'm not sure that will give me much of an advantage."

California Politics: A Family Affair

Of the many cases of incumbent intervention this election season, few have drawn as much attention as Daniel Hertzberg's offer to fill the job his father will vacate in the San Fernando Valley . Having served as Speaker of the Assembly and Senate Majority Leader, few are as well established within the Legislature and the state Democratic Party as Hertzberg. Since launching his own campaign, Daniel Hertzberg, business development manager for the DoubleTree Inn in the South Bay, has raised four times more money for the campaign than his three opponents combined, with top contributions from unions, health care industry groups, tribal governments and the campaign coffers of other Democratic lawmakers. The campaign has also amassed some of the most coveted endorsements in the state, including members of Congress, 24 current senators, the California Federation of Labor and the California Democratic Party.

State Senator Bob Hertzberg and his son Daniel on the Senate floor during swearing-in ceremonies in 2014. Photo by Lorie Shelley, California Senate

That has led some critics to criticize nepotism. There is a perception that "he's riding on daddy's coattails," said Sean Rivas, chairman of the San Fernando Valley Democratic Party. An organization for Democratic clubs throughout the valley endorsed Caroline Menjivar, Hertzberg's main opponent on the campaign trail. The feeling that the race was meant to be a “father-to-son coronation just turned people off,” Rivas added. Daniel Hertzberg says that while his resume may not be that of a typical candidate, it gives him valuable perspective. A president of the US Senate Team Club noted that he put his identity as a political nerd on hold after graduation when he got a job in a hotel, as a waiter, washing dishes and cleaning toilets. He eventually worked his way up to developing business opportunities for Hilton, but he points to those humble beginnings as a strength. “The experience that I bring as a minimum wage worker, as a millennial renter, I mean, those are important things,” Hertzberg said in an interview with CalMatters on Wednesday. “I think we need to start redefining what we mean by 'qualified.' I think some of the brightest minds in politics in the United States come from minimum wage work…I don't think every politician should have a resume painted by numbers." The hospitality world has also prepared him well for the election campaign, he said: “When they teach you in the Marriott world to make 100 calls and expect a bunch of rejections, the world of politics and fundraising is not as discouraging". In a podcast last October produced by the law firm Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, Sen. Hertzberg also previewed some of the criticism leveled at his son's campaign. “There's an argument against legacy, it's like, 'Oh, who do you think you are?'” he said. “But as long as you are humble, kind, someone who knows how to listen, attentive and committed to people … those are the factors that are important.” He added: When you run for office, with critics “beating you up, it takes a lot of guts. It takes a lot of courage to take the leap."Family trees often take root in the California Legislature . Among the 120 current members of the Assembly and Senate, 13, just over 10%, are related to current or former members by blood or marriage. That includes Oakland Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, who won a 2021 special election to fill her husband Rob's seat after he was appointed to be attorney general . Bonta is unopposed for re-election this year. The list also includes another Democrat, San Diego Assemblywoman Akilah Weber, who took over from her mother Shirley after she was appointed secretary of state . Senator Susan Rubio and Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio are also on this list. Burke, the Inglewood Democrat who endorsed Pullen-Miles, is also on the list because she recently left the Legislature. Burke's mother, Yvonne, was the first black woman to serve in the California Assembly. Before her election in 2014, Autumn ran a business consulting company and had no electoral experience. But Menjivar said the family ties in the San Fernando race are different. “We have examples where people who are related apply for a position, where staff members apply for a position, but they have the experience, they have the qualifications,” he explained. Hertzberg touts his experience volunteering for Barack Obama's presidential campaigns. He has worked in hotels since 2016 and for the past four years, at the DoubleTree in Carson, about a 40-minute drive south of the district. “In no way am I discounting my opponent's experience in hospitality or anything like that,” Menjivar said. "But he's not even in the community." Menjivar, a Navy veteran, spent the height of the pandemic representing Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's administration in the eastern valley before taking a job at MEND, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles. Pacoima that helps fight poverty. But like Hertzberg, he is inexperienced. That, in itself, is remarkable in a race to represent roughly a million people. “If someone with more election experience and better name recognition had gotten into the race sooner, it probably would have made a difference,” said Shanna Inglesbee, who sits on the board of the San Fernando Valley Democratic Party. But after Hertzberg launched his candidacy last August, no one else did. This article was originally published by CalMatters .

This article was originally published by CalMatters.

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