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Limit Less?

As area candidates battle over term limits, the larger question is whether they work

Karina Cervantez Alejo, a Watsonville city councilmember, is running for her husband Luis Alejo’s seat in the state assembly. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

An election year like 2016 is a busy time for any married couple. Along with ordinary responsibilities to family and work, they make decisions in important races locally and nationally.

But 2016 is of particular importance to State Assemblymember Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) and his wife Karina Cervantez Alejo, a Watsonville city councilmember and former mayor. Both are pursuing their political aspirations by running for major offices in the Monterey Bay area.

“Bold leadership is needed to address the state’s numerous issues,” says Cervantez Alejo, who’s running for her husband’s seat in the assembly. “Colleges are harder to get into, we still must adapt to California’s historic drought, and jobs and economic opportunities continue to be a concern for families. These are challenges I am willing to take on.”

Her husband, who’s getting termed out of his assembly seat, is running for Monterey County supervisor and says he moved to Salinas last year.

It’s a matter of perspective whether the Alejos are tireless champions of working people or simply politically ambitious opportunists—not that these two things are mutually exclusive.

On one hand, the pair has a strong public service record and a legislative history of looking out for economically and politically disenfranchised communities. Alejo is probably best known for laws he wrote in 2013 to raise the minimum wage and provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. He authored 20 bills in the last legislative session, 18 of them eventually getting signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Their opponents, though, have suggested that the two rising Democrats’ political ambitions outweigh their desire to serve, and that the evidence lies in the Alejos’ willingness to shuffle addresses in order to avoid term limits.

Alejo, also a former Watsonville mayor, was elected to the assembly in 2010, as part of the last class subject to six-year term limits. California voters approved the extension of those limits in 2012 to 12-year terms, but too late for Alejo. He is scheduled to term out at the end of this year, prompting his move to Monterey County, where he’s running for District 1 supervisor against incumbent Fernando Armenta in November.

“I moved to Salinas from Watsonville because it is the district with greatest needs,” he says. “It has the highest unemployment rate and the highest homicide rate in the state of California.”

Alejo says he is committed to pursuing some of the same policies he forwarded in Sacramento at the local level.

“Salinas is the largest city in the Monterey Bay area, and it has no year-round shelter for the homeless,” said Alejo, who feels that the city’s response to a ballooning homeless population in the Chinatown area of the city has been myopic and ineffective. “These draconian ordinances are not working. We need a different approach, something more humane.”

Because Cervantez Alejo sits on the Watsonville City Council, she still lives in Watsonville cannot move to Salinas with her husband while in office. The nomadic approach to politics has not sat well with the couple’s political opponents.

Fernando Armenta, the District 1 supervisor on the Monterey County’s board since 2000, did not respond to requests for an interview. Recently, though, Armenta has accused his opponent of using this seat as a launch pad to other offices, after getting termed out. “I don’t think he’s here to stay,” Armento told Monterey County Weekly of Alejo.

California State Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) gets termed out in 2020, and with all his experience, Alejo would look like the obvious front-runner for that seat in four years, although Alejo doesn’t say those are his plans.

“I only have plans to run for County Supervisor in District 1,” Luis Alejo tells GT in a follow-up, via text message. “Most people I talk to recognize that the incumbent hasn’t led on much in 15 years as a supervisor.”

As is often the case when it comes to anything political, these squabbles over term limits go both ways.

Cervantez Alejo, ironically, cites term limits as the principal reason voters should not elect her opponent, Anna Caballero, a fellow Democrat, in the race for the assembly’s District 30.

Caballero, a Democrat who served as mayor of Salinas and on the city council for 15 years, was also elected to the California Assembly twice, serving from 2006 to 2010, before she lost a bid for reelection. She later served in Gov. Brown’s administration as secretary of the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency. Like Armenta, Caballero did not comment for this story, missing two scheduled phone interviews with GT.

Because Caballero was elected to office prior to 2012, she is subject to the same term limits as Alejo. Because of term limits, she would be limited to serving one two-year term.

“I’m only the candidate who can serve this district for the long term,” Cervantez Alejo says. “There are tough issues such as income inequality, affordable housing in our communities, restoring economic vitality. To tackle these issues will require more than the two years she has left.”

Caballero touts the breadth of her experience, saying that sets her apart from Cervantez Allejo.

“I have the opportunity to hit the ground running,” Caballero says. “The first term is a learning opportunity. There is nothing I need to learn.”

These regional squabbles are part of a bigger, possibly shifting picture: there’s a growing belief among experts that term limits may not be serving their intended purpose and may do more harm than good.

The state of California had a part-time “citizen legislature,” which paid a relatively meager wage until the 1960s. That’s when the state’s growing population and increasingly complex political world led to the legislature being professionalized. That continued until 1990, when voters passed Proposition 140, introducing term limits. At the time, proponents argued limits would curb careerist politicians, return the government to citizen legislators, and theoretically create opportunities for minorities and women.

The Public Policy Institute of California concluded in 2004 that such measures have failed to do so.

“Careerism remains a constant in California politics,” the study states. “Many have local government experience and run for another office … when their terms expire.”

Furthermore, the study asserts term limits may actually hinder the proper functioning of a representative democracy, in that legislators are termed out right as they gain the appropriate level of expertise. The continual inexperience of the assembly representatives makes it unlikely that the legislature will hold the executive branch of the government more accountable, particularly during the budget process.

Cervantez Alejo, who has witnessed firsthand her husband’s six-year tenure in Sacramento, admits that, as with all other candidates, there would be a period of acclimatization to the new role should she win the election. “There will be a steep learning curve, regardless, although I definitely have a lot of familiarity with the issues,” she says.

For his part, Alejo says he will be happy to assist his wife should she earn the seat, but also says that the advices flow both ways in their marriage.

“It’s been mutual,” he says. “Karina is one of the smartest people I know. We have always run ideas and strategies past each other. I learn from her, but I also contribute ideas. It’s collaborative.”

In advance of her primary run-off against Caballero in June, Cervantez Alejo has been pulling in big endorsements, including ones from local law enforcement and the California Democratic Party.

Cervantez Alejo says that people who cast her and her husband as ambitious people looking to slake their political thirst are discounting the years of public service both have contributed.

“Both he and I have a strong commitment to our communities,” she says. “This trajectory we’re on doesn’t happen overnight. It’s been a long history of involvement. Anything else is a misrepresentation.”

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