Three key factors led to the upcoming forced retirement of Rep. Pete Stark after 40 years in office: the state's new redistricting and open-primary systems, and the congressman's appalling behavior.
Stark, the dean of the California congressional delegation and the fifth most-senior member of the House, was first elected in 1972. He was perhaps best known at the time as an anti-war activist who had placed a peace symbol on the Walnut Creek headquarters building of the bank he founded.
Today, he is thought of as the health-care reform advocate who alienates his colleagues in Washington with brash and sometimes-offensive comments, and the candidate who lashed out at his opponent and the media with wild accusations he later retracted.
Despite that, he probably would have held onto his seat to his grave if not for the new voter-approved approved political reforms. First, candidates for the state Legislature and U.S. House ran in districts created by a citizens' commission rather than by state lawmakers. Second, those candidates had to compete in an open-primary system in which the top two finishers, regardless of their party affiliations, advanced to the general election.
Academics and political pundits will debate the merits of the California changes for years to come.
For example, as a result of the new districts, Democrats are winning two-thirds of the seats in both the state Assembly and Senate, giving them the ability to raise taxes without Republican votes. But it remains to be seen whether that will be tempered by the open-primary system, which, theoretically, should make lawmakers more sensitive to the concerns of voters across the political spectrum rather than just within their own party.
The effect of the reforms on congressional-level policy will be harder to determine because the new election rules only apply to California's representatives. But the makeup of that delegation has clearly changed as a result.
The new maps forced some incumbents to compete against each other. And, in other cases, they left sitting lawmakers vulnerable to serious outside challengers. No one more so than Stark.
He had to run in a more moderate district as a result of redistricting. And he found himself running against a fellow Democrat in Tuesday's general election as a result of the open-primary system. It was a perfect confluence of events that contributed to Stark's demise.
But it was his behavior that left him so vulnerable. Sure, Rep.-elect Eric Swalwell, a 31-year-old Alameda County prosecutor and Dublin city councilman, positioned himself perfectly with his centrist campaign against the 80-year-old liberal. Yet, it was Stark who committed political suicide by popping off with false accusations.
It was an ignominious end. We thank the congressman for his four decades of service. Nevertheless, it was obvious to us and to voters that it was time for him to go.