Debra Bowen, State Senator from Redondo Beach, talks to PT about term limits, incumbency and the prospects of redistricting.
PT: Proponents of redistricting reform say that it will make incumbents more accountable and therefore more effective. Is this the case?
Bowen: Should we change the way legislative districts are drawn to take the process out of the hands of the Legislature, which has a built-in conflict of interest? Absolutely. However, simply changing the process of who draws the lines won't make legislators more effective or accountable. Does having that threat of defeat in the next election make lawmakers more effective? It's not uncommon for it to lead to the opposite effect, where you wind up with someone who is so afraid of alienating any one voting block that they're paralyzed and completely ineffective. I've always felt lawmakers get in the most trouble in the eyes of the voters when they try to be all things to all people.
PT: Assuming that most elected officials enter office with good intentions, what happens to diminish their effectiveness when they become an incumbent?
Bowen: Good intentions aren't synonymous with effectiveness, and I don't agree with the premise that being an incumbent automatically makes a legislator less effective or less accountable. There are some people who have wonderful intentions but are completely ineffective, while there are others whose intentions are less than altruistic, yet they're very effective. Politics is no different than any other profession in that the longer you're in the job, the more effective you're likely to be. I was a better lawyer in year five of my career than I was right after I passed the bar, and I'm a better policy maker in my last term in the Senate than when I was first elected in 1992.
PT: What types of structural difficulties have you encountered in trying to accomplish your goals?
Bowen: Sometimes just having a good idea isn't enough to be successful or effective. People need to do the homework and learn the history behind a particular issue. They need to build coalitions and they need to talk with their colleagues. It takes a long time to learn the finer points of a particular policy or agency, and then to figure out what questions to ask. With a revolving-door legislature, it's also difficult to hold the bureaucracy accountable because many of the people who are most resistant to change know if they drag their feet long enough, the lawmaker who has been giving them a hard time will be gone.
PT: Does party structure contribute to inefficiency or lack of accountability? Do legislators struggle to balance representing their districts and going along with party objectives?
Bowen: Party structure only dictates behavior to the extent that individual lawmakers allow it. That internal struggle between being true to themselves, representing their districts, and fitting in with colleagues and party leadership happens to just about everyone and everyone deals with it differently. While I've battled it from time to time, I made the decision very early in my career that I needed to be comfortable with my decisions. While I certainly respect the party leadership and I'm honored to represent nearly 900,000 people, I can't be somebody I'm not, and I need to be true to myself and to my beliefs. Then it's up to the voters to decide if they're comfortable with the decisions I've made, the bills I've authored, and the votes I've cast. I'm sure that independence has cost me in some ways, but looking back over the last 13 years, I have very few regrets about the decisions I've made.
PT: People are concerned about legislative deadlock in the capitols and voter apathy in the polls. What are legislators doing—or not doing—once they take office that contributes to this?
Bowen: The Legislature is criticized, often justly, for focusing on minor issues instead of the larger problems facing California. On the other hand, the moment someone tries to tackle a meaty, complex issue, they're pummeled by whatever interest group is on the "losing" side of a particular proposal. Take the tax system. It's a disaster, but any significant proposal to change it by, for example, lowering the sales tax rate and broadening the base by applying it to certain services runs into immediate opposition from people in those service industries.
Voter turnout has actually been going up in the recent regularly-scheduled statewide elections in California, so I'm more concerned with voter fatigue. Voters have been stuck in what's become a seemingly endless campaign cycle.
PT: Why are some legislators afraid to tackle the really pressing issues? Is it just because they don't want to lose reelection?
Bowen: People aren't afraid to tackle the hard issues because they're worried about losing their next election; they're reluctant because they can't see victory in such a short time horizon. If you're a freshman assemblyman who will have a maximum of six years in office, you have limited clout in your first two years because you're learning the ropes, and in your last two years, you're termed out of office, which also cuts into your ability to get things done. That means the middle two years are your best chance to accomplish anything complex and meaningful.
PT: What are the best ways to address these issues? Is redistricting going to contribute to the solution?
Bowen: The problem stems from a combination of factors. I'd have to say redistricting is the least important of them. Much of it comes back to term limits. We have people with less experience, so the power and knowledge has shifted from the Legislature to the administration and the lobbying corps. Then there are the intangibles that are harder to quantify. Term limits means a good 30% of the people are new here every two years, which makes it hard to build trust and relationships between lawmakers within the same party, much less across party lines, or with whatever administration is in power at the time. The short time horizon also means people are less willing to put in the work needed to solve truly difficult problems because they won't be here to see the results. It's far too easy to push the hard decisions into the future and make them the next Legislature's problem.
PT: Senator, thank you for your time.
Debra Bowen represents Redondo Beach and the Los Angeles communities in the 28th Senate District. Bowen graduated from Michigan State University in 1976 and earned her law degree from the University of Virginia in 1979.