Only someone schooled in the Machiavellian nature of hardball partisan politics can appreciate the true significance of Rep. Elton Gallegly's decision yesterday to file for re-election at the earliest possible moment. Had he decided instead to hold out until near the deadline of 5 p.m. on March 7, the delay would have created endless gossip, conspiracy theories and backroom plotting.
Here's why there was such potential for mischief:
A seat in Congress is the crown jewel for a local politician because there are no term limits, the pay and perks are very good, and the districts are and probably will continue to be safely designed to protect all but the most careless incumbents. As a general rule, these seats open only once in a generation. Eastern Ventura County is a case in point: Gallegly was elected in 1986, and the seat has been locked down ever since.
No one wants to miss the opportunity when a seat does become open.
It's no secret that former Assemblyman Tony Strickland covets that seat in Congress whenever Gallegly decides to retire. But this year, Strickland is already committed to a campaign for state Senate and has succeeded in clearing the field of other Republican challengers. As Gallegly found out two years ago, the Elections Code -- designed to prevent gamesmanship -- says that once an individual files candidacy papers for one office he cannot back out or decide instead to run for a different office.
So Strickland was in a pickle. If he filed his Senate papers before Gallegly, then he would have been left out of the picture had Gallegly decided to retire. So he would likely have waited, creating a possible game of chicken at the county Elections Division. Making matters more complicated, Strickland could not have abandoned his Senate run at the last minute because that would have left Republicans without a candidate and conceded the district to Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson.
So, of course, there was speculation about lining up a back-up candidate who would have been waiting in the wings to step in at the last moment for Strickland had his opportunity to run for Congress presented itself.
Adding further intrigue, a new state law requires that the filing period be extended for five days in the event that an incumbent member of Congress does not file for re-election. The extension also applies to seats in the Legislature -- but not if the incumbent is termed out, because in that event the opening is evident well in advance of the deadline. The Senate seat is held by Tom McClintock, who will be termed out.
Thus, had Gallegly waited until the last minute and not filed for re-election, Strickland would have had to commit himself by 5 p.m. on March 7. And had Gallegly not filed his papers, all other Republicans in the district would then have had a full week to decide whether to jump in and run for Gallegly's vacant seat. Adding further intrigue is the fact that the district includes three counties -- which means Strickland could not have simply waited at the Ventura County Government Center to see what Gallegly was doing, because Gallegly could have decided instead to file in Santa Barbara or Los Angeles counties.
You get the idea. There was potential for high drama and a good deal of mischief.
By filing on Monday, Gallegly put a stop to all the intrigue. The rumors are dead.
Given all the confusion of two years ago, Gallegly's decision was the right and honorable thing to do.