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Political Families Circumvent California Term Limits


California was one of the first states to institute term limits. Now it's on the leading edge of a new trend. In tomorrow's primary, three wives, one husband, and two brothers are running for a seat in the state assembly held by family members.

From member station KPCC, Tamara Keith reports from Sacramento.

TAMARA KEITH reporting:

When termed-out Democratic assemblywoman Judy Chu went searching for a successor, she looked no further than the man she's been married to for 26 years.

Ms. JUDY CHU (Former California State Assemblywoman): I really could not think of anybody who would be more qualified for that seat.

KEITH: Now, she admits she may be a little biased, but Chu insists that her husband, Mike Eng, a city councilman and attorney, stands on his own as a strong candidate for the state legislature.

But when spouses or siblings run for a relative's seat, they enjoy certain benefits, almost like the benefits of incumbency - connections in the community and with campaign donors, and the most priceless political asset of all: name recognition.

The unstated campaign message? If you liked the assembly member, then you'll love his wife, or her husband, or brother. But Mike Eng, who does not share a last name with his assemblywoman wife, has had to work harder to get his name out there.

Mr. MIKE ENG (City Councilman and Attorney, California): What I like to tell people is get to know Mike Eng, and you'll find that Mike Eng is a different person from Judy Chu. And if you think that Mike Eng is a worthy successor to Judy Chu, then vote for Mike Eng because of Mike Eng, not because Mike Eng happens to be married to Judy Chu.

KEITH: On Tuesday's ballot, voters in California will likely recognize the surnames of Dianne Harman, Renee Chavez, and Laura Canciamilla. Those three are all running for their husband's assembly seats. Dianne's husband Tom is running for a seat in the state's senate. And if the Harmans both win, they'll become the second bicameral couple in Sacramento. The first are a pair of petite blond Republicans who can often be seen visiting each other during floor sessions.

State Representative SHARON RUNNER (Republican, California): Sharon Runner, a State Assemblywoman in the 36th District.

State Senator GEORGE RUNNER (Republican, California): And I'm Senator George Runner, from the 17th District.

KEITH: Sharon and George Runner met in high school. They have two kids, and years ago opened a large religious school together in the high desert. When George was about to be forced out of the state assembly by term limits in 2002, Sharon Runner ran for and won his seat. But she says a good last name isn't a guarantee.

State Rep. RUNNER: You really have to work hard and know your community and your constituency. So it's not a given. It's not just because you have the same last name, doesn't mean you're going to win.

KEITH: Of course, spouses ending up in each others' political offices is nothing new. But, says George Runner, before term limits, it used to happen as the result of an untimely tragedy.

Sen. RUNNER: In the past, what would happen is a person would run, they'd get elected, and then often, you know, there might be a death of that spouse while they're in the office, and it would be very typical for the spouse then to run for that seat and get elected. We've got lots of examples of that. So, I guess in one sense, you get death by term limits, so it's really a natural extension of that.

KEITH: Well, not so natural, says Jack Pitney, a professor of politics and government at Claremont McKenna College.

Professor JACK PITNEY (Politics and Government, Claremont McKenna College): The creators of term limits were also supporters of family values, but this isn't necessarily the version of family values they were thinking of in the context of term limits.

KEITH: Pitney says the phenomenon of family succession was not part of the equation when California voters approved term limits in 1990.

Prof. PITNEY: If you're really intent on injecting new blood into the system, it really runs counter to the spirit of term limits. I think people were looking to reach outside the legislative family, so to speak, but instead, it is a case where term limits are all in the family.

KEITH: But this trend may not be all bad. Many government watchers argue that California's strict term limits have diluted the institutional memory and experience of the state's legislature. Pitney says having relatives take each others' seats creates a kind of continuity that simply isn't permissible under the rules of term limits.

For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith, in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.