A grassroots movement fueled by anger over the cost of a special election for Rep. Jane Harman’s (D-Calif.) seat has sprung up in the coastal towns surrounding Los Angeles.

Harman announced Feb. 7 that she was stepping down as the representative for California’s 36th district to become head of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, a Washington-based research institution. She’s set to remain in the House until Feb. 28, according to her office.


Her departure, only two months into her new term, has some activists suggesting the wealthy Democrat should cover the cost of the special election to fill her seat.

“Certainly the public is outraged with the fact that she quit,” said Richard Grenell, a former Bush administration official who is coordinating the effort. “She’s not even coming back to the district.”

Harman is the third wealthiest member of Congress, according to a list compiled by The Hill. Together with her husband, Sidney Harman, the congresswoman is worth more than $152 million, according to her 2010 financial disclosure forms. 

Grenell noted that news broke last May that former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), whom Harman is succeeding as president of the think tank, was planning to step down. “I would really like to know when she started negotiating for this job,” he said.

If she knew before the midterm vote last November that she was going to get it, Grenell added, “she sold the voters of the 36th a false message.”

A spokeswoman for the Woodrow Wilson Center did not respond to a request for comment. Harman has she said she regrets the cost to taxpayers, telling the Los Angeles Times she wanted her departure to be "as inexpensive and as convenient for voters as possible." A special election for two vacant state Senate seats in the Los Angeles area earlier this month cost some $3 million, according to one estimate. 

With that in mind, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is looking to schedule the special election for Harman's seat in June, when a statewide vote will be held on tax issues. A primary would be held eight Tuesdays before the special election.

In the meantime, Grenell, who lives in the neighboring 35th district, said he’s hoping public pressure will convince Harman to cover the cost. “We don’t think it will be accomplished through a petition,” he said. “We think it will be accomplished through media pressure."

That has already started to build, with local blogs and talk-radio host John Phillips taking up the issue. Harman’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

While there’s no question that California is facing a budget crisis, there isn’t any precedent for a member of Congress having to cover the cost of a special election. Moreover, it raises questions about the credibility of the vote if it’s funded by an independent source.

Grenell said that wasn’t a concern. “We’ll take her money and we’ll take that risk,” he said.