Sacramento’s political age of the aged in Congress

Last week, California marked the 88th birthday of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) with both congratulations and public exultations to pass the torch onto a younger generation. But going unnoticed was the fact that among the 40 largest metro areas in the U.S., the Sacramento metro area is represented by the second-oldest group of U.S. House members in America.


The Greater Sacramento Metro Area is represented by five House members. With Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Stockton) recently turning 70 and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) hitting 65 in two weeks, this will leave the area with just one U.S. representative under the age of 65. That is 56-year-old Ami Bera, also of Elk Grove who lowers their average age to 68.6.


Among large metro areas, only Washington state’s Greater Portland area surpasses this. The average age of their four House members is 70. Greater Portland’s 2.5 million population also ranks it as the 25th largest metro area in the U.S., one spot ahead of Sacramento’s 2.4 million.

Some defend the age of older elected officials by noting that advanced age can benefit constituents through experience and appointment to chair powerful committees. However in Feinstein’s case, the reverse has happened. Due to reports she has drifted off in meetings and was not sharp in the nomination hearings of Amy Coney Barrett last year, she was passed over as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when the Democrats took over the majority this year. This happened despite her tenure normally putting her next in line for that gavel.


Among the Sacramento area’s five House members, only Bera is chairman of a committee or subcommittee. Bera is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia, and Nonproliferation. Given his South Asian heritage, this is a personally meaningful post for Bera, but Bera didn’t get this because he is an especially sought-out foreign policy mind or possesses a facility for passing legislation into law. No piece of legislation he has authored had ever passed into law, and the now five-term Congressman has yet to be primarily responsible for securing federal funds for any key local projects.

His main qualification that earned him his subcommittee chairmanship was his willingness to raise prodigious amounts of corporate donations for himself, members of the pro-corporate New Democrat Coalition, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). To the DCCC, he donated $350,000 last cycle. In fact in 2019-20, Bera’s campaign raised nearly $400,000 from 103 of the most heavily and repeatedly fined corporations in the U.S. These donors combined for more than $150 billion in federal and state fines since 2000.


So the value of Bera’s “seniority” to metro area voters is dubious at best.


But the question remains, why is Sacramento’s delegation so old? Three dynamics are most likely at play. First – and to put it bluntly – all have stayed healthy and avoided dying in office.

Second is the lack of opportunity for any to seek higher elected office. Sacramento is unique among the 40 largest metro areas in that it is the only one to be fifth largest in its own state. This creates a lot of competition for statewide offices among ambitious candidates who represent larger constituencies from areas such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Orange County.


Thus when voters elected Joe Biden president, this gave Gov. Gavin Newsom the rare opportunity to concurrently fill three statewide offices, and none went to Sacramento-area politicians. Vice President Kamala Harris’ senate seat went to Alex Padilla of Los Angeles. This in turn opened up Padilla’s Secretary of State position for the appointment of Assemblymember Shirley Weber of San Diego.


When Biden named Xavier Becerra to his cabinet as secretary of Health & Human Services, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg reportedly lobbied hard to succeed Becerra as state attorney general. However, Newsom instead named Assemblymember Rob Bonta from the Bay area.


The last dynamic that limits turnover and opportunities for younger candidates is the incredible cost of federal campaigns. In 2020, the average winning 2020 House candidate spent $2.3 million, and the average winning Senate campaign spent $27 million. This requires tremendous amounts of corporate and special interest PAC donations, but these are largely locked up by the metro area’s corporate-friendly moderate incumbents.


For example, the area’s four House Democrats raised between 41% (McNerney) and 73% of all donations last cycle from political action committees. This included a combined $1.1 million given them by 184 heavily fined corporations.


Perhaps unsurprisingly in the last 10 years, the only change in the area delegation came thanks to redistricting that finally gave Democrats in 2012 the registration advantage needed for Ami Bera to win his suburban Sacramento County seat over the GOP incumbent Dan Lungren. Otherwise, no other changeover has happened at the Congressional level.


And in the case of Doris Matsui, her seat has been kept in her family for 42 years. Matsui – who last year married 90-year-old energy billionaire Roger Sant – succeeded her first husband Bob Matsui, who died in office in 2005.


Might any of them retire any time soon? Given the example of 88-year-old Feinstein, that seems a hard bet to take. But when any of this superannuated group either steps down or passes away, expect quite a stampede to result of Sacramento-region incumbents looking to take their shot at a rare chance to step up.