Few people in politics have fire in the belly, passion for policy and devotion to cause like Rep. George Miller. That's why his announcement that he will retire at age 69 after 40 years in Congress surprised so many.

Within hours, state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, entered the race to succeed him and within nine days cleared the field of serious Democratic challengers. In a district in which his party outnumbers Republicans by 2-1, DeSaulnier should have smooth sailing to Capitol Hill.

He's smart, thoughtful, candid and intellectually honest, with 22 years' experience in state and local elective office. But he will have a hard time matching Miller's passion and vision.

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, uses his cellphone to capture an image of Gov. Jerry Brown delivering his State of the State Address before a joint
State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, uses his cellphone to capture an image of Gov. Jerry Brown delivering his State of the State Address before a joint session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Although he has long eyed Congress and previously ran unsuccessfully for the seat vacated by Rep. Ellen Tauscher, DeSaulnier hasn't made a compelling case for why he's running.

"Like George, I love being in public life," he told reporter Lisa Vorderbrueggen as he launched his campaign on Jan. 13. "To be a member of the Legislature has been a dream come true, and then to think about being a member of the U.S. Congress is even more amazing."

It was a revealing comment. It was about him, not his policy objectives. Just the opposite of the man he seeks to replace. For Miller, policy is Job 1.


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The congressman also remains awed by his role in the House of Representatives, where only four people have more seniority. But for Miller, it's foremost about protecting the environment, ensuring kids get good educations, providing everyone access to health care and protecting working people from abusive employers.

Those aren't just talking points for Miller. When he speaks, one can almost see his blood pressure rise and feel the intensity of his commitment. These issues explain why he's left his family in Martinez to fly back to Washington at the end of most weekends since 1974 -- the reason he will compromise when necessary, but play political hardball as well as anyone else on Capitol Hill.

Here on the editorial page, we see too few candidates with such clearly thought-through positions and agendas, and too many who tell us they want our endorsement because they "want to serve." DeSaulnier's answer to Vorderbrueggen was the want-to-serve response to which we roll our eyes.

At least in his news release announcing his candidacy DeSaulnier tipped his hat to policy, but only by generically hitting every Democratic Party touchstone: "I'm running for Congress to help bring an end to the brinkmanship and gridlock in Washington, so that we can move forward with President Obama's agenda of creating more good-paying jobs, growing our middle class, investing in our infrastructure, increasing access to health care, advancing the use of renewable and homegrown energy, enhancing our education systems, and making the United States a leader in innovation around the globe."

In fact, DeSaulnier, like Miller, takes policymaking very seriously. But for the state senator it can be a painfully ponderous process. That's why few think of him as a passionate political force to be reckoned with.

While Miller was the son of a powerful state senator, DeSaulnier remains haunted by the memory of his father, a corrupt judge. That might help explain their very different personalities. Miller has clear focus, a fiery temper and little or no self-doubt. DeSaulnier is tenuous and soft-spoken, with a desire to please all sides and broker compromises.

That's not to knock compromise -- we could use more in Washington -- or to say that DeSaulnier would be better or worse than any other Democrat who considered running. It's to say that neither DeSaulnier, nor any of the others, will match the incumbent.

To be fair, that's a tall order. Miller has the advantage of four decades' seniority, a milestone DeSaulnier, 61, will never reach. Miller also has a clear sense of purpose, something DeSaulnier often struggles to find for himself.

If elected, DeSaulnier will work hard and take the new job very seriously. But it's unfortunate that he probably won't be tested on his way to Washington. Tough campaigns force candidates to think about, and articulate, why they're running.

DeSaulnier would benefit from that.

Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or dborenstein@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BorensteinDan.