Loud charges of carpetbagging filled the air in large parts of California this spring, as two veteran Republican politicians sought to extend their careers by running in areas with open seats in Congress and the state Assembly.
In the end, voters apparently didn’t much care if these people had not lived among them very long, as both Tom McClintock and Jim Nielsen handily won Republican nominations in districts where that means almost automatic election this fall.
The outcomes were no surprise to longtime analysts of California politics, who have often seen politicians move around for their convenience, with voters rarely minding much.
The classic carpetbagger was Republican Robert Dornan, who represented much of western Los Angeles County in Congress for three terms between 1976 and 1982. Often known as “B-1 Bob” for his fervent support of bomber-building programs, Dornan saw himself as a sure loser after Democratic state legislators transformed his original district after the 1980 Census.
So Dornan sought greener pastures. First, he staged a losing attempt at election to the U.S. Senate in 1982. Immediately afterward, he moved about 40 miles southeast of his longtime district to the Orange County town of Garden Grove, where in 1984 he defeated five-term incumbent Democratic Congressman Jerry Patterson and then served noisily in the House for 12 years. He was eventually unseated by Democrat Loretta Sanchez by a thin 970-vote margin in 1996, and claimed his defeat was illegal because thousands of non-citizens had allegedly cast ballots for Sanchez. But a congressional investigation could find no more than 674 illegally cast votes, so his loss stood up.
Carpetbagging never hurt Dornan and it has almost never hurt the election chances of any California politician. Maybe that’s because Californians are so mobile, with the average resident moving once every seven years.
The bottom line this month was that when votes were counted in both the 4th Congressional District and the 2nd Assembly District, the carpetbagging McClintock and Nielsen both won.
Voters in McClintock’s contest against former GOP Congressman Doug Ose actually had a choice of two carpetbaggers, of sorts. McClintock has represented Ventura County – about 350 miles to the southwest – in the Legislature for most of the past 26 years and is finally about to be termed out after spending about half his life in state office.
First elected to the Assembly at age 26 from his hometown of Thousand Oaks, he served 10 years and then took a hiatus from 1992 to 1996. Elected again, he spent four more years in the Assembly before moving to the state Senate in 2000.
McClintock, a conservative icon for his firm opposition to almost any increased state taxes and spending, has famously made his principal residence in Placer County, while collecting tax-free legislative per diem pay of more than $300,000 for maintaining a “second home” far from the district he visited only occasionally.
Meanwhile, primary election rival Ose represented the neighboring Third Congressional District – a seat now occupied by fellow move-around Dan Lungren, a former state attorney general who represented Long Beach for many years in both the Legislature and Congress before winning statewide office.
Ose rented quarters one district over in an attempt to avoid the carpetbagger tag he tried to hang on McClintock.
Things were slightly different in the nearby 2nd Assembly District, where Nielsen, a Woodland resident and former 12-year state senator who later chaired the state parole board, claimed to have rented quarters in the hamlet of Gerber and become a district resident.
When a weekly newspaper in the district discovered he hadn’t ever slept there, rival candidates began pounding the carpetbagger theme, noting that Nielsen swore when filing his candidacy that he lived in the district.
“This is a serious matter,” said rival Charles Schaupp, a farmer and Marine reserve lieutenant colonel. “We are a state and nation of laws. To run for office…you must reside in the district.
Unfortunately for Schaupp, most voters in the district didn’t appear to care. Nielsen won easily and will almost certainly return to the Legislature.
Which ought to warn off other candidates who seize on residency issues. History and the latest election returns tell us the voters don’t really care where politicians live or how long they’ve lived there. Maybe that’s because most of us also can remember living somewhere else.
Elias is author of the bestselling book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.” firstname.lastname@example.org