CONCORD -- State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, who began his political career 22 years ago as a Concord city councilman, has emerged as the early front-runner to win the coveted congressional seat that U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, will vacate at the end of the year.
Within a day of Miller's surprise retirement -- he announced Monday that he will retire after 40 years in Congress -- DeSaulnier, 61, locked down weighty endorsements from three otherwise potential challengers in the Democratic field: state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, of Pittsburg; Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, of Concord; and Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, of Richmond. Neighboring state Sens. Loni Hancock, of Berkeley, Lois Wolk, of Davis, and Ellen Corbett, of San Leandro, publicly backed their fellow Democrat on Friday.
DeSaulnier also is expected to secure Miller's influential nod.
In 2009, Miller enthusiastically endorsed DeSaulnier to fill a neighboring congressional seat vacated by Ellen Tauscher when she took a post in the State Department.
Despite the prestigious backing, DeSaulnier lost that election to the much better known and then-Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who in recent days squashed rumors that he might swap out his re-election bid in the more competitive District 3 for Miller's safer Democratic 11th District.
"I'm pleased with how things are going so far, but I'm not taking anything for granted," DeSaulnier said. "I've been down this road before."
DeSaulnier is walking a fine line between appearing anointed by the party establishment before the election and demonstrating sufficient strength to discourage serious challengers.
In California's new voter-approved open primary system, where the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, there is "a lot more pressure on the parties to shrink the primary field and avoid what happened in Riverside," said Bruce Cain, political science professor and director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in Riverside's Inland Empire congressional district, but four Democrats split the vote in the 2012 primary and two Republicans advanced to the general.
"If Miller and (House Minority Speaker Nancy) Pelosi close ranks behind DeSaulnier because they don't want to run into a Riverside situation, they will work hard to make sure there are no well-funded Democrats to split the vote," Cain said.
On the other hand, party operatives have little influence over a wealthy political outsider who shows up unannounced and shakes up the field.
"Under the current political climate, anything is possible," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book political guide. "Congress' approval rates are in the single digits, and people are very unhappy with the federal government.
"But most people think that the Republicans will still control Congress for a while, and this is a Democratic district. Who wants to spend a lot of his or her own money to be a freshman in the minority party?"
As of Friday, DeSaulnier was the only declared candidate, although that seems unlikely to last.
Open congressional seats are extremely rare; once elected, incumbents are rarely defeated and no term limits apply. The official candidate filing period runs from Feb. 10 to March 14.
The district encompasses north and central Contra Costa County, stretching east from Richmond along the waterfront through Pittsburg, plus Walnut Creek, Concord, Clayton, Pleasant Hill, Lamorinda, Alamo, Diablo, Blackhawk and Danville.
Unlike state legislative seats, residency in the district is not required to run for Congress. The Constitution only specifies that candidates must live in the state.
Other Democrats looking at the race include two relative political novices when compared with DeSaulnier: Walnut Creek Mayor Kristina Lawson and former Walnut Creek City Councilman Kish Rajan.
"I've been encouraged not to dismiss it," said Rajan, who left the council in 2012 to take a job as director of Gov. Jerry Brown's Office of Business and Economic Development. "These kinds of opportunities only come around once in a lifetime."
Lawson, an attorney, also spoke of the rare opportunity to run for an open seat.
However, like Rajan, she has young children. And she is up for re-election to her second term on the Walnut Creek council in November, which means she would have to give up her post if she finishes as one of the top two vote-getters in the June congressional primary.
"The most important factor in my decision is my kids and my husband," Lawson said. "I'm talking with women who hold public offices who have children and families and trying to fully understand the impacts."
Both said they will make a decision within a few days.
On the Republican side, retired federal immigration Judge Tue Phan-Quang, of Danville, has announced his candidacy.
The GOP has only a third of the registered voters in the heavily Democratic 11th Congressional District, but the party will still seek "someone who could be competitive," said Republican and former San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson. He said he was asked to run but has declined.
The biggest unanswered candidacy question is Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo.
She terms out of the Assembly this year and has said she is interested in running for DeSaulnier's Senate seat in 2016. If DeSaulnier is elected to Congress in November, voters will fill the balance of his term in a March 2015 special election.
Buchanan, a former San Ramon Valley school board member, also is very interested in Congress.
In 2009, she spent $1 million of her own money on an unsuccessful bid to fill Tauscher's seat, coming in third behind Garamendi and DeSaulnier.
The assemblywoman met with DeSaulnier last week, but her spokeswoman has only said that Buchanan is "considering her options."