In defense of ‘career politicians.’ Experience shouldn’t be a liability for candidates

Over the last several months, the Times editorial board conducted interviews with more than 100 people running for local and federal offices on the March 5 ballot. Again and again, we heard a similar refrain from the politically inexperienced candidates: “I’m not a career politician” and “We need to stop electing career politicians.”

But what’s so bad about being a career politician?

In every other industry, professional expertise is considered a good thing in prospective employees. In elections, voters are essentially hiring their representatives for local, state and federal governments. But politics is unusual in that on-the-job experience can be seen as a liability rather than an asset. Some voters like the idea of the outsider who can shake up government and views elected office as a temporary venture.

Imagine a hospital executive vetting job candidates and thinking, “I don’t want another career surgeon.” And what person facing criminal charges would want to hire an attorney who declares, “I’m not a career lawyer”?

That’s preposterous. So is the idea that there’s something wrong with people who choose to make a career out of public service. Like any professional, lawmakers hone their skills over time. It’s the rare individual who can arrive in City Hall, Sacramento or Washington, D.C., and quickly excel at shepherding bills into laws, overseeing government agencies and delivering for constituents.

It’s even sillier to hear so much disdain for people who have served in political office — from people running for political office. What will these candidates be if they are elected and decide to serve more than one term? Career politicians, or close to it.

And if they’re good at their job, why shouldn’t they parlay their experience and skills to seek a promotion by running for higher office? Former California Gov. Jerry Brown, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass — they’re all career politicians who have moved from office to office with strong voter support.

In this election, the editorial board endorsed several “career politicians,” namely state legislators who want to serve in Los Angeles City Hall or move to Congress. Each race is unique and we look at the totality of each candidate, including how his or her experience and skills would serve the office.

But when we recommend voters pick a longtime politician, such as Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) for Los Angeles City Council District 14 or Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) for the 30th Congressional District, it’s often because they are known quantities and have a track record of success. We have seen their leadership in action and know they’ll get things done in the next office.

Not every “career politician” is the best candidate in every race, however, and it’s not uncommon for us to choose a newcomer over the incumbent or established politician. For example, we favored Eddie Anderson for Los Angeles District 10 over Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), who served 12 years in the Legislature and championed important criminal justice reforms. Anderson stood out as someone who could bring a new vision and energy to the district.

The impulse to reject “career politicians” out of hand is understandable right now. There’s a lot of frustration among voters about the current state of affairs. In Los Angeles, progress in fixing big problems — easing homelessness, building affordable housing and expanding public transit — isn’t happening fast enough. California is again facing a staggering budget deficit that could slash services and public investments. And Congress seems incapable of passing any meaningful legislation — including keeping the government running for more than a few months at a time.

As we know from the 2106 presidential election, rejecting an experienced leader in favor of a rookie can be dangerous. Sometimes the right choice is to trade long-term elected officials for people with fresh ideas, but not when their only crime is choosing to remain in public service for longer than a couple of years. More often, their expertise is just what we need.


This editorial was published in the Los Angeles Times and distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

Leave a Comment