RECLAIMING THE POWER-For the first time in decades, California is poised to play a significant role in determining each party’s presidential nominee. Being a reliably blue state, presidential candidates in the recent years have done little campaigning in the Golden State. As Angelenos know, whenever President Barack Obama’s entourage arrives in town, Southern California in particular has served little purpose in national and state politics other than as a source of money from the region’s Hollywood elite.
To Californians, Southern California generally encompasses the entire region south of the Grapevine in the southern edge of the San Joaquin Valley to include the counties of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Orange, Imperial, San Bernardino, San Diego and Riverside. The region alone has a total population of 22.6 million people, which is more populous than every state except for Texas. Despite its large geographic area and population, Southern California is noticeably underrepresented in both state and national politics.
Statewide, seven of the eight constitutional offices (governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, controller, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public education) and the two U.S. Senators are all from Northern California – Secretary of State Alex Padilla is the lone officeholder from Southern California.
Of the 52 representatives of California’s delegation to the U.S. Congress, Rep. Ed Royce, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is the only representative from Southern California to hold a leadership position.
Compare California’s national representation with two other large states: New York and Florida. New York has three locals running for president: Donald Trump; Secretary Hillary Clinton, who represented the Empire State in the Senate; and Senator Bernie Sanders, who was born and raised in Brooklyn.
Another New Yorker, Senator Chuck Schumer, is the presumed next Senate Minority Leader.
Florida sent two of their politicians into the Republican presidential primary: Senator Marco Rubio and former governor Jeb Bush.
Additionally, Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Even Wisconsin has two high-profile leaders in national politics. Paul Ryan is the Speaker of the House and Reince Priebus is the chair of the Republican National Committee.
The lone Californian in either party’s presidential primary was Carly Fiorina; however, she was based out of Silicon Valley in the north.
California’s lone representation on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy, is another NoCal native.
SoCal’s lack of representation in state and national politics contradicts the region’s rich history in politics. Two U.S. presidents, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, built their political careers in Southern California.
Legendary Chief Justice Earl Warren, who championed civil rights in multiple historic Supreme Court cases to include Brown vs. Board of Education, was born in Los Angeles.
Despite this history, why is Southern California underrepresented in state and national politics?
Joel Kotkin, fellow of urban studies at Chapman University in Orange County, pinpoints the region’s loss in economic power at the end of the Cold War as the primary cause of the loss in political representation.
“Aerospace, homebuilding, agribusiness … large parts of the whole industrial belt got wiped out,” laments Kotkin.
According to Kotkin, when the Cold War ended, military bases closed down taking with them people and defense contractors, which decimated the homebuilding and aerospace industries.
Furthermore, environmentalist economic policies imposed by Bay Area progressives forced the energy and agriculture businesses out of Southern California.
Ultimately, the loss of a strong business community in the Los Angeles metropolitan area shifted the economic and political power of California to the Bay Area, bolstered by the technology industry in Silicon Valley.
Kotkin also cites low voter participation rates as another cause of So Cal’s lack of representation. “You have a largely poor minority population in a one party setting, so why should anyone vote?” Kotkin observes.
In the 2015 Los Angeles municipal elections voter participation plunged to an embarrassing 8.6 percent. In the 2012 presidential election, only 49.6 percent of registered voters in Los Angeles County voted, compared to 57.5 percent nationally and 72 percent across all of California.
San Diego County did slightly better than LA County in their 2014 municipal elections in which 20 percent of registered voters voted.
Jennifer Walsh, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Science at Azusa Pacific University, explains that the 2010 Citizens Redistricting Commission is one of the reasons for SoCal’s lack of national representation.
Walsh points to Representatives Jerry Lewis and David Dreier, who chaired the House Appropriations and House Rules committees, respectively, as examples of how the Citizens Redistricting Commission forced powerful So Cal representatives into retirement.
“Representatives, like Dreier,” Walsh explains, “faced substantial re-election hurdles in newly drawn districts, and, as a result, many, like Dreier, opted to retire rather than lose.”
Another possible cause is the financial expense required to run campaign advertisements in the country’s second largest media market.
Walsh notes, “The Los Angeles media market is one of the most expensive in the nation, so candidates for legislative positions — or even statewide offices for that matter — find rates for radio and television advertising on these media channels prohibitive.”
“In comparison,” she continues, “Northern California candidates can do more targeted advertising for the same amount of money, and, over time, this builds name recognition with the voters. So, when members of the legislature are termed out of office and run for statewide office, they have an advantage.”
Better representation in national politics is essential in order for Southern California to exert influence on the issues that are most important to the region. Policy concerns regarding international trade, immigration, copyrights and water all directly affect the interests of Southern California’s residents.
For example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement currently stalled in Congress features language that would ease customs documentation for imports. According to the OECD, “crossing the border” increases the costs of goods by 24 percent. Furthermore, with the widening of the Panama Canal, the So Cal ports are now facing competition from ports in the Gulf of Mexico for imports from Asia. Passing TPP could alleviate regulatory burdens on imports and exports coming through the Port of Los Angeles, consequently increasing the volume of traffic at the port.
Another issue where Southern California could exert influence in national politics is on immigration. There are an estimated 1.2 million illegal immigrants currently residing in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties; Congress’s failure to pass immigration reform in 2010 and 2013 means that those 1.2 million will continue to live in the shadows. A more powerful voice in national politics could advocate for legal status for those illegal immigrants in the region who are unable to contribute to the local economy because of their undocumented status.
SoCal’s burgeoning technology industries also have a direct interest in the expansion of H1B visas for high skilled labor. For the fourth consecutive year demand for H1B visas has surpassed the 85,000 allotted visasavailable causing the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency to award the visas by lottery. With stronger representation in leadership positions in Congress, SoCal representatives could demand the federal government to expand the H1B visas available in order to satisfy the demand for local businesses.
In order for SoCal residents to achieve favorable reforms that protect and expand economic opportunity in those industries, Southern Californians will need to become more active in the political process by electing representatives who will advocate those issues in Congress by assuming influential leadership positions.
Southern Californians also need to support candidates from their region who run for statewide office. Currently, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, whose district includes Anaheim and Santa Ana, is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Senator Barbara Boxer. Former L.A. mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, and current San Diego mayor, Kevin Faulconer, are both rumored to have interest in running for the governorship in 2018.
As the presidential campaign soon shifts to California, Southern Californians have the opportunity to demand to be more than a money source for presidential candidates. SoCal residents should wield their influence to extract commitments from presidential candidates to pursue interests relevant to the region.