LOS ANGELES — Washington's lousy with politicians who decry the city's endless cycle of partisan sniping, gridlock and dysfunction. Still, every election, there they are, fighting for one more term — unwilling to leave the nation's capital even when they lose.
But that's not Gloria Negrete McLeod.
One term in Congress was enough, thank you, for the California Democrat who is convinced that she can do more good as part of the five-member San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors than she can as one of 435 votes in the U.S. House.
The 73-year-old congresswoman, elected in 2012, is retiring after just one term — in part because she doesn't like the long cross-country commute to Washington and in part because she feels Congress is at a standstill.
“I would have stayed in Congress until they carried me out,” McLeod told CQ Roll Call. “But it’s a place where nothing gets done.” Trading Congress for a $152,000-a-year job in county government doesn't seem like a step down to McLeod, After all, the sprawling county of more than 2 million, which stretches from the eastern edge of Los Angeles to the Arizona border, is geographically larger than New Jersey and Massachusetts combined. The county's $4.8 billion a year budget is about a billion more than the state of Delaware spends annually.
Whether it's Washington, D.C., or San Bernardino, Calif., it all boils down to public service, McLeod said — and she doesn’t understand why some people are so puzzled by her move.
“One position and another equates to the same thing in my mind — that you’re all serving the constituency that elected you,” McLeod said. “So I really don’t understand what the big to-do is with me not running for re-election.”
McLeod's decision makes plenty of sense for people who understand the demands of a congressional travel schedule and the difficulties of life in the House, said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Los Angeles' Claremont McKenna University and a former GOP operative and staffer.
“The House is not accomplishing much to begin with, and members of the minority party have practically no say in what little does happen,” Pitney said. “So being a House Democrat is tremendously frustrating. ... If she wants to do visible good for a lot of people, she is aiming for the right job.”
Democrats dominate Sacramento, the state capital where McLeod spent 12 years prior to coming to Washington. The difference between legislating in the majority and being in the House minority came as a “culture shock,” McLeod said.
She was disappointed she couldn’t do more in the House, but she said she met all her responsibilities and even had one bill make it out of the Veterans' Affairs Committee attached to one of the Chairman Jeff Miller’s bills.
“The rest of my bills are floating around somewhere in the ether,” McLeod said.
Still, McLeod’s coronation as a county supervisor is far from certain. She is facing a termed-out state Assembly member, Curt Hagman, who was high-ranking in Republican leadership.
McLeod won June’s jungle primary by fewer than 200 votes, but the numbers in the one-to-one rematch are in her corner.
The county’s voter registration spread as of Oct. 12 is 40.8 percent Democrat, 31.9 percent Republican and 22.7 percent claiming no party preference. McLeod had $424,000 as of mid-October to Hagman’s $142,000.
Hagman is not surprised the congresswoman has a substantial lead in fundraising, he told CQ Roll Call, since she opened her Supervisor 2014 candidate committee in 2010 and had $652,000 in it before she even announced her congressional bid.
“This was her original plan,” Hagman said.
McLeod said that she had planned to run for supervisor in 2014 when her term in the state Senate would have expired, but saw an opportunity in Congress and took it. She said she never saw the congressional job as a placeholder.
Ironically, McLeod is likely to be replaced in Washington by Democrat Norma Torres, who filled McLeod’s state Senate seat as well.
Torres won the primary with 65.7 percent of the vote, with second place about 50 points behind, and she has more cash on hand than her opponent has raised in total.
Torres is undeterred by McLeod’s disappointments with Washington. She said Washington reminds her of Sacramento in 2008, when she was first elected to the Assembly. At that time, Democrats were still hovering around a supermajority in both houses of the legislature, but the government was divided because there was a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I worked really hard in a very terrible environment as a brand new (state) legislator,” Torres said. “I’m looking at this congressional seat as the same type of challenge.”
Born in Guatemala, Torres, 49, came to the United States at the age of five. She worked for the Los Angeles Police Department for 17 years as a dispatcher.
She’s been on a leave of absence from the police department since entering the legislature — she says she not only has that to fall back on, but finds it instructive in politics.
“When people call 911, they don’t say ‘I’m a Republican, I need an ambulance,’ or ‘I’m a Democrat, I need a police officer,’” Torres said. “They just need services.”
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