The afternoon of March 10, 2006, was one of the most chaotic ever seen in the office of the Ventura County Elections Division. Earlier that day, Rep. Elton Gallegly had visited former Ventura County Star Editor Joe Howry and dropped this bombshell: He intended to retire.
The deadline to file declarations of candidacy for the office was 5 p.m., and Gallegly's announcement set off a wild scramble. Former Assemblywoman Audra Strickland was at the counter asking about candidacy forms, first for her husband, Tony, and then for herself.
When the dust had settled, none of it mattered. All three politicians had already filed declarations of candidacy -- Gallegly for Congress, Audra Strickland for Assembly and Tony Strickland for controller -- and as all three found out, those declarations, once submitted, cannot be withdrawn.
Gallegly, after receiving medical assurances that the health issue that prompted his aborted retirement was not serious, changed his mind, ran after all, and easily won re-election. The incident, however, prompted a change in elections law. The following year the Legislature passed a bill -- known in some quarters as "Elton's Law" -- that added Congress to the list of offices for which an automatic filing extension is granted if a "qualified incumbent" does not file for re-election. The law is designed to prevent shananigans that would allow an incumbent to secretly decide to retire then hand-pick a successor who could file at the last minute, shutting out any other potential challengers.
Fast forward to 2011, and Gallegly once again is being coy about his intentions. It is highly unlikely that anything resembling 2006 will happen again. After all, there are still more than four months before the filing period closes at 5 p.m. on March 9 ... or does it?
Given that Gallegly lives just outside the boundary of the new 26th Congressional District, is he an "eligible incumbent"? And if he chose not to file, would the deadline be extended?
I asked at the county Registrar of Elections Office and at the Secretary of State's Office, and I'm still not certain I have an answer.
The Elections Code does have a section that deals with defining incumbents in the first election cycle after redistricting when the answer to such a seemingly simple question is not evident.
My reading of the code -- and I am certainly not a lawyer -- is that, by legal definition, the incumbent in the district is the member of Congress who represents the current 26th District, in the San Gabriel Valley. His name is David Dreier, and he has no intention of moving to or running in Ventura County.
We'll have to wait for the county registrar to sort it out, but it could well be the filing deadline will in fact be extended for five days because Dreier isn't running. If that's the case, Gallegly could wait until 5 p.m. on March 14 to make a decision.
As I say, it almost certainly won't come to that. But the potential for chaos exists again.