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Seats of long-serving California Democrats a coveted prize

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POSTED November 26, 2012 2:02 a.m.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — When it comes to politics, the state synonymous with perpetual youth has gone gray at the top.

California Gov. Jerry Brown was born the year Babe Ruth signed on to coach the Dodgers — the Brooklyn Dodgers. California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, was exiting high school the year President Harry Truman sacked Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Humphrey Bogart swaggered across the screen in “The Enforcer.”

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was a college student when she attended John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address — in 1961. And Sen. Barbara Boxer was born before the U.S. entered World War II, in a year when a gallon of gasoline cost 18 cents.

They’re all older than Ronald Reagan when he became, at 69, the oldest president to take office in U.S. history. They’ve endured for years in a trendsetting state that popularized everything from skateboarding to Spago, where every year brings something new, whether on a Hollywood screen, a food truck menu or a Silicon Valley laptop.

At issue is more than a few wrinkles.

Earlier this month in Washington, Pelosi, 72, bristled when a reporter alluded to her accumulating years and asked whether younger House members were being  sidelined by septuagenarian leaders unwilling to relinquish power.

“It’s quite offensive,” she added, arguing that she had helped to advance, not stifle, the careers of younger House Democrats.

A similar question is being raised about prized offices in California. Something of a logjam is taking shape among the party’s young guns eager to advance, who range from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, 45, who ran briefly against Brown in the last governor’s race, to state Attorney General Kamala Harris, 48, widely seen as another potential candidate for governor or senator.

Generational strains are already evident.

Rep. Pete Stark, 80, was dispatched this month by a fellow Democrat nearly 50 years his junior, Eric Swalwell. Stark, who has represented his San Francisco Bay area district since the waning years of the Vietnam War, was depicted in the campaign as a vestige of another era.

“There are going to be a lot of Democrats looking at that example,” said veteran political strategist Garry South, referring to Stark’s demise. South, who has advised Newsom, said party leaders gaining in years risk losing touch with younger voters in the rapidly diversifying state.

“We Democrats are supposed to be the party of youth and hope and change,” South said. “At some point in time, these younger Democrats who are coming up the ranks are going to have to look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘Bide my time or take a shot at somebody?’ Patience is not a virtue in politics.”

Feinstein was re-elected in a landslide this month but her age — she turns 80 next year — attracted only glancing notice in a state where more than 40 percent of the population clocks in under 30.

She carried the vote among every age group, despite efforts by her 49-year-old opponent, Republican Elizabeth Emken, to suggest the senator was ready for the rocking chair. Next year the youngest senator, Connecticut’s Chris Murphy, will be half her age.

“To be old you have to look old and act old,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which analyzes legislative and congressional campaigns. “I think the average voter has no idea how old Dianne Feinstein is.”

Boxer, 72, has been in Congress nearly three decades and weathered a tough re-election battle for another six-year term in 2010. Brown, 74, who is up for re-election in 2014, sent a message about his political stamina this month by convincing voters to back a $6 billion-a-year tax increase; Pelosi, a grandmother of nine, first came to the House a quarter-century ago and occupies a safe Democratic district that gave her 85 percent of the vote Nov. 6.

Their durability in office can be explained partly by a strong Democratic tilt in California that makes incumbents hard to beat, paired with a hobbled Republican Party that has seen its registration numbers wither below 30 percent in the state. They all hold policy positions that square with most voters in the left-leaning state, and over the years each has become a well-developed political brand while avoiding scandal. Life spans have lengthened and culture and medicine keep pushing at the boundaries of age — 40 is the new 30, as the saying goes.

Questions about rigor and health can shadow older politicians — Reagan in his later years, for example, or John McCain, who was 72 at the time of the 2008 presidential election. The California Democrats are all in their 70s but have worked to maintain robust images — Brown boasts of his jogging regimen and appears to thrive on statehouse jostling; Feinstein heads the Senate Intelligence Committee and is a regular on TV news programs; Boxer, known for a feisty demeanor, is in charge of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Pelosi, who just announced she would seek another term as House Democratic leader, pushed back firmly when the question of her age came up in Washington this month.  “Oh, you’ve always asked that question, except to (70-year-old Senate Republican leader) Mitch McConnell,” she said, implying that she considered the query to be not only misguided but sexist.

For statewide offices, would-be challengers face daunting odds trying to get the attention of more than 18 million voters; it costs millions of dollars to finance a week or two of TV ads.

“The state is so large you can’t run and insurrectionary campaign against an incumbent and expect to break through,” said Democratic consultant Parke Skelton, who has advised two of the party’s leading prospects for higher office, state Controller John Chiang, 50, and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, 50.

For all its connections with cutting-edge culture, California voters can also display a frumpy side — comfort with the name brand. In 2008, when Barack Obama was captivating the country on the way to winning the presidency, Californians lined up with Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary.

Democrats have a deep and diverse bench — mirroring a changing state — though no challengers have yet come forward to any of the senior Democrats. A list of other prospects for statewide office would include Assembly Speaker John Perez, 43, and former state Controller Steve Westly, 56, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Democratic fundraiser. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, 59, will also be looking for another job when his term ends next year.

Part of the potential risk for the political old guard comes with California’s new primary system, which advances the top-two finishers to the general election, even if they are from the same party. That has created openings that didn’t previously exist — November showdowns with two Democrats, or two Republicans. It set the stage for Stark’s ouster.

“There is a lot of pent-up demand for these statewide offices,” South notes.

Brown is actually in his second go-round as governor — his first stint was 1975-1983. He’s no longer the dashing bachelor politician known for dating Linda Ronstadt, but his restless intelligence remains a trademark even if his hairline has retreated. These days, he occasionally mentions how much he admires, and benefits from, his wife’s political skills.

“They may be old but they are not stodgy,” said Republican strategist Jonathan Wilcox, who teaches a course on politics and celebrity at the University of Southern California.

“They stay in office,” he said, “because it’s the fountain of youth.”

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