Dulce Maria Scott
The emergence of open seats in California
All Portuguese American congressmen from California ran for an open seat, with the exception of Dennis Cardoza, who easily defeated a weakened incumbent in the primary election. The factors that lead to the emergence of open seats include: retirements, resignations, deaths, as well as increases, following national reapportionment, in the number of congressional districts in a given state.
Districts where the two major political parties are able to compete for power also provide a higher level of opportunity for members of different parties to challenge incumbents at the polls. The Democratic Party has been increasing its dominance in California, but this state’s congressional delegation has always included a sizeable number of Republicans. Although California’s districts were drawn in 2002 to be “safe” districts, along the lines of whether the population voted predominantly either Republican or Democrat — guarantying thus that incumbents of both parties would be safe — a few districts remained competitive. With the redistricting of 2012, California’s districts seem to have become “more “purple” than “red” or “blue” — that is, more mixed in electoral composition and thus politically more competitive (Merl and Mishak 2011). California, as a result of its specific history of settlement and immigration, perhaps offers a more level playing field where newcomers are less encumbered by established political elites against whom they would refrain from running.
California gains congressional districts
The U.S. House of Representatives is constituted by 435 seats that are apportioned by states according to the size of their population, as measured by the United States decennial censuses. Rhode Island continues to have 2 seats, Massachusetts has been losing seats in the last decades, and California has been increasing its share of representatives in Congress. Of particular note is the reapportionment of 1992, following the 1990 census, which led to an increase of 7 congressional districts in this state. This meant that from one congressional election to the next, there were at least 7 districts with an open seat.
Let us take a brief look at how each of the six Portuguese congressmen from California came to hold office (for information about the six congressmen, see their official websites, Wikipedia sites, as well as Graves 2013).
The Portuguese American Congressmen from California
1. Tony Coelho, Democrat (15th district) (1979-resigned in Aug. 1989) – initially elected to an open seat, after a retirement
Before Tony Coelho ran for Congress in 1978, he worked as a leading staff member for Congressman Bernie Sisk, from 1965 to 1978, and when the latter retired, Coelho ran for his seat. Coelho was thus positioned at the right place and at the right time to assume political office when the seat became vacant. Tony Coelho reached high levels of leadership in Congress, being elected as the 21st United States House of Representatives Majority Whip, a position he held from January 3, 1987 until he resigned on June 15, 1989.
2. Richard Pombo, Republican (11th district) (1993-2007) – initially elected to an open seat resultant from the 1992 redistricting plan
Richard Pombo was one of the Californian congressmen that benefitted from the addition of 7 congressional districts to this state in 1992. Even though he was very young and new to politics, he was able to win in an open seat. Before running for Congress, Pombo served as City Councilor in Tracy from 1990 to 1992. Although his district, before the 2002 redistricting, was mostly Democratic, the Pombo’s family name recognition and the constituents’ empathy for the congressman’s positions on land ownership and environmental issues, maintained him in office. With his loss in the 2006 election, Pombo’s district was the only one in California to change hands, from the Republican to the Democratic Party in that election year.
3. Dennis Cardoza, Democrat (18th district) (2003-resigned in Aug. 2012) – initially elected against a weakened incumbent of the same party
When Tony Coelho left Congress in 1989, he was succeeded by Gary Condit, who until then had been serving in the California State Assembly. Dennis Cardoza had been Condit’s chief of staff in the California Assembly and took the latter’s seat after Condit went to Congress. Cardoza’s opportunity to run for Congress arose when Condit’s career came under scrutiny as a result of an affair with intern Chandra Levy, who was murdered. Cardoza defeated Condit easily in the primary election, facing then Republican State Senator Dick Monteith in the November election. Subsequently, Cardoza was elected four more times with little opposition. Cardoza’s decision to resign from his seat in August of 2012 resulted in part from the 2012 redistricting plan which would most likely put him in competition with Jim Costa (see Trygstad 2011).
4. David Nunes, Republican (21st and 22th districts) (2003-present) – initially elected to a new reconstituted district, which before the 2002 redistricting plan had been part of 3 different districts
David Nunes is another Portuguese candidate who benefitted from redistricting, in his case in 2002. Nunes had some political experience, including being appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as California State Director for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development section. He left that position in 2002 to run for the Republican nomination for the 21st district. This district was newly formed, taking parts of 3 previous districts, through the redistricting of 2002. The district was solidly Republican and, as such, Nunes’ faced stiff competition in the primary elections. His two main Republican opponents in the primary election were both from Fresno and divided that portion of the vote among themselves; this led to a victory for Nunes. After the 2010 census, Nunes’ district (21st) was remunerated the 22th district and is also strongly Republican. The congressman has just been appointed to the high profile position of chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
5. Jim Costa, Democrat (20th and 16th districts) (2005-present) – initially elected to an open seat resultant from a retirement, then moved to the 16th district after redistricting in 2012
Jim Costa had served in the California State Assembly from 1978 to 1994 and in the California State Senate from 1994 to 2002 before he decided to run for an open seat vacated by the retirement of seven-term incumbent, Cal Dooley. Although Dooley endorsed his chief of staff for the open seat, most of the Democratic Party establishment favored Costa, setting the scenario for a bloody primary battle. The 20th district was heavily Democratic and had been drawn as a Latino majority district. After winning an election where Republicans invested heavily in an attempt to capture the seat, Costa went on to win easily the 2006 and 2008 elections. In 2010, Costa was again challenged by the Republicans but managed to win in an election that was called only three weeks after Election Day. After redistricting in 2012, the district, now numbered 21st, became slightly more Republican, and Costa, then, decided to run in the newly formed 16th district. He was considered vulnerable in the new district but won the 2012 election with 54% of the vote. In 2014, he prevailed against another Portuguese American, Johnny Tacherra (R), in an election that was for some time too close to call (see Ellis 2014).
6. David Valadao, Republican (21st district) (Jan. 2013 – present) – first elected to seat left open by Jim Costa’s decision to run in the 16th district after redistricting
David Valadao is another candidate that benefited from redistricting in 2012. Valadao had run successfully for the California State Assembly in 2010 after the retirement of Republican state Representative Danny Guilmore. Then, in 2012, he ran and won against the head of the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in the newly reconstituted district (now the 21st) vacated by Jim Costa’s decision to run in the 16th district. His victory, in what had been a strong Democratic district, was hailed nationally by Republicans as a template to be followed in other areas of the country (see Nidever 2012).
In summary, in their first election to Congress, two of California’s Portuguese American congressmen (Coelho and Costa) found their opportunity after the retirement of incumbents; three (Pombo, Nunes, and Valadao) benefitted from new districts created as a result of redistricting; and one (Cardoza) was able to defeat an incumbent who had been weakened by scandal.
Prior to being elected to Congress, three of the congressmen (Cardoza, Costa, and Valadao) served in the California State Assembly; Pombo, in addition to high family name recognition, served in Tracy’s City Council; and Coelho and Nunes had assumed political positions, the first as a congressman’s leading staff member and the second as a presidential appointee to a federal office in the state of California. Were they helped by concentration of Portuguese population in their districts?
Portuguese population by congressional district in California
Table 6 shows that 15 of the current 53 California congressional districts have a population of Portuguese ancestry of 10,000 or higher. Unlike in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the Portuguese population in not highly concentrated in a specific congressional district. The California district with the highest percentage of Portuguese, the 10th district, is not represented by a Portuguese American. While, the small percentage of Portuguese in each of the districts might provide candidates of this ethnic group with a slight boost at the polls (as explained in a personal interview by Paul Tavares, as well as by Devin Nunes in Graves 2013:170), it seems that factors, other than population concentration, have had a higher impact on the congressional electoral success of Portuguese Americans from California.
The economic success, and corresponding social prestige, achieved by the Californian Portuguese in agribusinesses spanning over a century in the San Joaquim Valley has undoubtedly contributed to the political success of members of this ethnic group at the local, state, and federal levels. It may have positioned the six congressmen in such a way as to be able to take advantage of political opportunities when they presented themselves. However, their socioeconomic status alone does not tell the whole story, and it is unlikely that it would have propelled them to the same level of political incorporation at the national level were they running for office in more restrictive political environments such as those found in the New England states.
Of equal, if not higher, importance in explaining the capacity of the Portuguese to win federal elections in California are the following factors: (1) rapid population growth and the resultant addition of several congressional districts through national reapportionment; (2) a more flexible party system that has allowed the Portuguese to run for office both as Democrats and Republicans — three from each party, so far; and (3) a more leveled playing field, where newcomers to politics do not have to compete for the highest political offices with members of traditional New England power elites.
A comparison between the political incorporation of Portuguese Americans in California and New England, thus, needs to take into account the impact of varying social and structural factors related to the electoral systems in these different areas of the country. In the three states considered in this essay, Portuguese Americans have been positioned to run for Congress, but the opportunities for political incorporation at the national level have been much higher in California than in the Northeast. Nevertheless, it behooves Portuguese politicians in both California and New England to continue to make strides to position themselves in the “right place and at the right time” so as to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
Cruz, José E. 1998. Identity and Power: Puerto Rican Politics and the Challenge of Ethnicity. Philadelphia. PA: Temple University Press.
Ellis, John. 2014. “Jim Costa keeps House seat, edging out Johnny Tacherra in another late-vote rally,” The Fresno Bee. Nov. 19.
Graves, Ray A. 2013. California’s Portuguese Politicians: A Century of Legislative Service. San Jose, CA: Portuguese Heritage Publications of California.
Leblanc, Steve. 2011. “Scramble to fill retiring US Rep. Frank’s seat,” Associated Press, Nov. 28.
Merl, Jean and Michael J. Mishak. 2011. “Panel’s final redistricting maps drawn: California’s new political lines would make some constituencies more ‘purple’ than either red or blue,” Los Angeles Times, July 30.
Miller, G. Wayne. 2011. An Uncommon Man: The Life & Times of Senator Claiborne Pell. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.
Moakley, Maureen and Elmer Cornwell. 2001. Rhode Island Politics and Government. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Nidever, Seth. 2012. “Valadao win a ‘template’ for GOP? Hanford assemblyman’s victory in race for Congress a bright spot for conservatives,” The Sentinel, Nov. 23.
Portuguese Times. 2000. “Patrick Kennedy distinguido sócio honorário do Clube Juventude Lusitana.” Aug. 30.
Scott, Dulce M. and Marie R. Fraley. 2014. “How Did They Do It? A Structural Analysis of Portuguese American Political Incorporation in Rhode Island (1937-2012).” Gávea-Brown, 36:7-47.
Trygstad, Kyle. 2011. “Dennis Cardoza Makes Retirement Official,” Roll Call, Oct. 20.
Tuoti, Gerry. 2012. “Sen. Marc Pacheco will not seek Barney Frank’s Congress seat, supports Joseph Kennedy III,” WickedLocal.Com, Jan. 7.
United States Census Bureau. “Selected Population Profile in the United States,” 2009-2011and 2011-2013 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates. Wikispaces. “Capelinhos volcano in the Azores.”