By Richard Simon and Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
January 13, 2012

The retirement of Rep. Jerry Lewis, dean of the California House GOP, marks the sixth and most significant departure from Congress in the wake of a new redistricting plan, portending a dramatic shake-up of the state’s delegation.

California, after a decade in which only one seat flipped between Democrats and Republicans, now faces an election with about 12 competitive races. And some predict at least nine California newcomers could arrive in Washington in the next Congress.

Lewis, of Redlands, is the third veteran Republican to leave, and his departure is likely to weaken the state’s clout in Congress, where seniority still counts.

Three Democrats are also retiring. It is unclear whether the ratio of Democrats to Republicans will change. The delegation will be far different with a number of new faces. The shuffle is expected to affect races in the San Fernando Valley, other areas of Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire, where incumbents are either running in newly carved districts or running against other veteran incumbents.

The changes have been largely induced by California’s new law in which citizens rather than politicians drew political maps. Every decade redistricting triggers a rash of retirements and elective office hopscotching, but this time around changes are particularly intense, said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

“Redistricting is always the political version of musical chairs, except with switchblades,” Schnur said. “But the last redistricting was done by the Legislature, which was specifically motivated to protect incumbents in both parties.”

The parties dispute how many seats they could gain or lose in the next election — Democrats now outnumber Republicans 34 to 19. One independent analyst predicts a Democratic pickup of two to three seats.

Lewis, a fixture of Golden State politics since Ronald Reagan’s governorship, made his announcement days after Republican Reps. Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley and Wally Herger of Chico said they will leave Congress when their terms expire. Democrats Dennis Cardoza of Atwater and Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma also are retiring. Democrat Rep. Bob Filner of Chula Vista is running for mayor of San Diego.

“After months of consultation with loved ones and family, my wife Arlene and I have decided to retire from public life,” said the 77-year-old lawmaker. Lewis was first elected to Congress in 1978 after serving a decade in Sacramento.

Lewis had an impressive resume that a newcomer will need years to match. He was a former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; one-time No. 3 in House GOP leadership; former head of his state’s GOP delegation and a major Republican fundraiser.

Democratic-leaning California has enjoyed considerable influence in the House under Republican rule and Democratic control, largely because of the seniority its members have accrued from running in safe districts.

“California is losing a tremendous amount of influence in Washington with the recent retirements of Jerry, Wally Herger, and Elton Gallegly,” said Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar). “We are losing decades of seniority with these retirements and it will mean California’s congressional delegation has to work that much harder to protect California’s interests.”

Lewis’ decision set off a chain of musical chairs among those eager to replace him.

Wasting no time, Miller, who was facing a tough intra-party fight against Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), announced plans to run in a new San Bernardino County district where Lewis’ home is located. Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, a Democrat, announced his candidacy for the same district.

In the end, the 2012 races could produce a less partisan crop of representatives, Schnur predicted.

“The irony is that while redistricting may have encouraged Jerry Lewis to retire, it’s likely to create more Jerry Lewises in both parties — people who can work across party lines,” Schnur said. “You lose some seniority in both parties with all the retirements, but hopefully you gain an additional level of responsiveness.”

Shaun Bowler, a UC Riverside political scientist, said 2012 could be a defining election for California Republicans. Along with more competitive districts, the new “top two” primary system that sends the two candidates with the most votes to the general election — regardless of party — could push the GOP in a more moderate direction.

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