SACRAMENTO - When Laura Canciamilla decided to run for state Assembly, she knew she had at least one big thing going for her: Her last name.There's at least one husband coming up as well - Judy Chu's. But why so many spouses - c'mon, wives - taking the plunge?
The 59-year-old school administrator and member of the Pittsburg School Board has almost no government experience but she is married to Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, who spent decades building his reputation -- and the Canciamilla name -- in Contra Costa County politics.
Joe Canciamilla will be forced out of the Assembly in 2006 by term limits after six years in office, and that's where Laura comes in.
"If not me, then who?" Laura Canciamilla said in a recent interview.
The refrain is becoming a common one among Assembly members' spouses, who are increasingly stepping forward to take over for a husband or wife, prompted in part, experts say, by term limits.
Political analysts offer a variety of explanations. For one, the number of women pursuing political careers has swelled in recent decades, making female candidates commonplace and competitive in legislative races. Also, the constant turnover spurred by term limits makes name recognition a valuable commodity, as candidates often jockey among a field of unknowns for attention.Yes, all that makes sense. And, from the sisterhood point of view, I suppose at least it's the wives and not the sons or brothers stepping into the new dynasties. And the article closes with Laura Canciamilla commenting on the "coattails" edge of the name-recognition sword. But is it wrong to fear - again, from the sisterhood point of view - that this becomes the way for women to get elected?
And, winning a legislative seat requires considerable money and support, which is easier to build with access to Sacramento's political players. Finally, many local officials who spent years building names as county supervisors or city council members moved onto the Legislature when seats opened up over the last decade, thereby emptying the bench, so to speak, of potential candidates with much experience.
Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley political scientist who co-authored a study critical of term limits last year, said the rise of spouses seeking office is a logical, even if unforeseen, product of the measure.
"Being able to use a brand name, namely your husband's or wife's, is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in advantage," Cain said. "As a spouse, you are plugged into the network already. You know the people to raise money from and get endorsements from."
One commonly (well, common in some circles) cited unintended consequence of the intended term limits consequence was the depletion of the pipeline: the compiled ranks of qualified, eager woman candidates for state office. We had a bunch, we elected them, they served their time, and, whoops, we forgot to farm some more. Groups such as Emerge are working to fill that void. But while they (we, I'm an alumna from the first Emerge class) work to groom the next crop of women candidates, our current Democratic legislators aren't looking past the dinner table for their successors.
This isn't necessarily wrong.
But what comes next? Is the party's spousal support shortsighted? Does it leave every bit as unprepared for future legislators as we were when term limits opened the door for women to begin with?
There are no easy answers, of course, and there are about a thousand arguments and counter-arguments, all of which lead to messy, equally unanswerable questions on American attitudes toward gender and leadership. On this issue, its every gal for herself as we balance new cultural definitions of marriage, leadership, campaigns, representation, hierarchy, patriarchy, matriarchy, and good old fashioned political self-interest.