California Poised to Be Top State in Obama's D.C.

Forget Illinois: California is poised to be the top dog in Obama-era Washington.

With roughly a half-dozen Cabinet and key administrative appointees and a powerhouse congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the other end of Pennsylvania Ave., California is shaping up to be the new Texas, the alpha state whose cultural and policymaking influence was inescapable through most of the last eight years.

President-elect Barack Obama’s Energy Secretary-designate is Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Hilda Solis, a Los Angeles-area Democratic congresswoman, was named last week as Obama’s choice for Secretary of Labor. The Council of Economic Advisers will be chaired by University of California-Berkeley professor Christina Romer; Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley will head the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, and Phil Schiliro, a longtime top aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), will serve as Obama’s chief liaison to Congress.

While California's share of key administration positions has been on par with other big Democratic-leaning states Illinois and New York, when its unrivaled congressional clout is factored in, the state looms as a dominant force in a Democratic-controlled Washington.

“California will have substantial influence in the administration partly because of those selected for posts in government and partly because of the Speaker and our committee chairmen,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the chair of California’s Democratic congressional delegation. “And there’s certainly people in Silicon Valley who haven’t been hired but are wired in like [CEOs] Eric Schmidt over at Google and John Thompson at Symantec.”

“California has always been the ATM to the nation in terms of political fundraising,” said Lofgren. “We’re policy leaders now.”

Led by House Speaker Pelosi, the state's 34 members constitute the largest bloc in the Democratic Caucus. Highly gerrymandered congressional districts ensure little turnover within the delegation, which means it’s filled with senior members, four of whom chair committees—Education and Labor; Foreign Affairs, Energy and Commerce, and Veterans Affairs. Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland is the incoming chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

In the Senate, California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer—each serving in their third term—both chair important committees.

Though the state increasingly tilts Democratic, it also has clout on the other side of the aisle: Four Californians rank as the top Republicans on House committees, and fast-rising Rep. Kevin McCarthy was recently selected as the House GOP’s chief deputy whip.

By contrast, while New York and Illinois both have a senior senator in a top Democratic leadership position, they will be joined next year by rookie senators who will rank at the bottom in a chamber that runs on seniority. More than a third of the Illinois and New York congressional delegations have turned over since 2004, which helps explain why no one from Obama’s home state will chair a House committee in the 111th Congress.

“There are a bunch of constituencies that are rising,” said Bruce Cain, director of the University of California-Berkeley’s Washington Center in D.C. “But if you add in the congressional component with Nancy Pelosi and the power of the California members in the Senate and House there’s a really strong California presence.”

The state’s rising fortunes recall a time just a few years ago when President George W. Bush, then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the largest Republican delegation in the House burned a Texas brand on beltway Washington.

“There’s a similarity to where Texas was and to California is now,” said McCarthy, who represents a Bakersfield-based district. “California has filled that void.”

The state was plugged in during the administration of its former governor, Ronald Reagan, and boasted significant influence in the Clinton administration and subsequently within the Republican congressional majorities. But with California having emerged as a blue state citadel in an era where the White House and both chambers of Congress are under Democratic control, the stars are aligned for the Golden State as never before.

Perhaps as important, some of the most critical issues confronting the nation—namely energy and the environment—are areas where California has been a trailblazing presence.

With Waxman as the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, key parts of the Obama agenda on climate change and health care will come under the purview of a man who has spent the last 40 years in the California Assembly and the U.S. House.

“I really do think the Barack Obama agenda is something that has been heavily California-driven, particularly the green environment and green technology stuff where California has been a leader out of necessity because of the environmental issues we confront,” said Cain. “We were once regarded as kind of out there and too soft and too green. All that is now transformed dramatically.”

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