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Dan Walters: Congressional seats much coveted

There was a time when California's state legislators believed that they were better off personally, politically and even financially than members of Congress.

Working in Sacramento three or four days a week, at most a few hours by plane from their homes, was one benefit. California's members of Congress worked a continent away and spent a lot of time on red-eye flights to maintain some kind of presence in their districts.

Being just one of 435 members of a Congress governed by the seniority system meant one often had to spend decades as a backbencher before having even a minor effect on legislation that wasn't purely local.

But a state legislator could often get a plum committee assignment, even a chairmanship, after a couple of terms.

But term limits have mostly evaporated the attractiveness of a state legislative career vis-à-vis one in Congress has evaporated.

Now when a congressional seat falls vacant, which doesn't happen very often, it touches off a feeding frenzy, especially among term-limited state legislators in the district's dominant party.

And one of those periodic frenzies is erupting in eastern Los Angeles County because Rep. Hilda Solis, a former state legislator, is President-elect Barack Obama's pick for secretary of labor.

State Sens. Gil Cedillo, Gloria Romero and Ron Calderon, Assemblymen Charles Calderon (Ron's brother) and Ed Hernandez, and Judy Chu, a member of the Board of Equalization, were expressing varying levels of interest.

However it shakes out, there are two aspects to monitor. One is ethnic; Solis' district has large populations of both Latinos and Asian-Americans. The other is the huge, perhaps decisive, influence that the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor will wield.

Ordinarily, Romero would have a natural advantage in such an election, but there's a history of personal friction between her and Maria Elena Durazo, who runs the labor group.

Looming, meanwhile, is another round of congressional redistricting that will be done by the Legislature, albeit under the new rules of Proposition 11, passed by voters this year. And preliminary census data indicate that California, for the first time ever, may lose one of its congressional seats.

Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee.