By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
State Democratic and Republican leaders were undoubtedly disturbed and annoyed last week, but it had nothing to do with California's $20 billion budget deficit. Instead, the politicians faced a different kind of bad news: On Tuesday, June 8, voters of every ideological stripe — from conservatives to moderates to liberals – overwhelmingly intend to change the way the political establishment does its business.
"There's a lot of public dissatisfaction with our governor, our president and our state Legislature," says Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank based in San Francisco. "They want to shake up the status quo."
And according to a new PPIC poll, 60 percent of likely voters think Proposition 14 — the ballot measure that promises to create an "open" primary system — may just be the tool to do some major rattling.
Proposition 14 allows anyone, regardless of party affiliation, to vote for a candidate of their choosing in a given primary — a registered Democrat, for example, could vote for a Republican running for the California Senate. Then, the top two vote-getters from the primary would face each other in a run-off. So if a Republican and a Green Party candidate win the two slots in the spring, no Democrat appears on the November ballot in the general election. And if a Libertarian and Democrat win the most votes in the primary, no Republican appears on the general-election ballot.
Few voters realize it, but for years many of the key candidates for Legislature during the primary have been hand-selected by insiders at the California Republican and Democratic parties — a murky, often vicious process that many critics say has produced a generation of predigested, hack politicians who can't think for themselves.
"Proposition 14 will have a definite impact on the state," says Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University, "and probably a good one."
Proposition 14, interestingly, made its way on the ballot thanks to an insider's political deal, not via grassroots reform groups bent on change. Last year, state Sen. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican from Santa Maria who's now lieutenant governor, created a firestorm by jumping the political aisle to vote for higher taxes and casting the crucial "yes" vote for an overdue state budget backed by the Democrats.
Maldonado exacted a high price from Democrats for agreeing to betray the antitax GOP: He forced Democratic leaders, who have squelched many efforts to bring the open primary system to California, to reluctantly agree to put the question before voters in June. They did, and they are now hotly opposing the measure.
Maldonado and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are arguing that Prop. 14 will help bring "reasonable, open-minded, pragmatic" lawmakers to the state capital, where hard-core partisan politics reigns and, Maldonado says, too often causes Democratic and Republican legislators to "do what's right for our party, not what's right for California."
Deep ideological divisions between toe-the-line legislators in the two parties have created a warring statehouse — the 120-member Legislature is typified by hotheads like Assembly Speaker John Perez of Los Angeles — that doesn't reflect actual Californians, most of whom are moderates. "The argument is that moderates are willing to reach moderate, principled compromises," says Hodson, "rather than standing in the corner and refusing to play."
Prop. 14 is backed by the Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Police Chiefs Association and the California chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), among others.
"We have really significant problems with the [state] budget," says Jeannine English, a national board member of AARP and former president of California AARP, who co-chairs the "Yes on 14" campaign, "and we can't get our politicians to address those long-term issues."
English reasons that less than a third of voters bother to go to the polls during the primary because the existing system actually "encourages people not to vote." Instead, the most partisan voters stream to the polls, choosing highly partisan Democrats or Republicans. Today, only a half-dozen moderates hold seats in the California Legislature. Most legislators "don't respond to the needs of a large portion of voters," says English.
Opposing Prop. 14 are both Democratic and Republican party leaders, the Green Party, the ACLU of Southern California, the California Labor Federation and the California Teachers Association, among others. These groups think Prop. 14 is an awful idea for a host of reasons.
"It's the political cleansing of candidates," charges Christina Tobin, chair of the "No on 14" campaign. She fears that if voters are allowed to cross party lines during the primary, they'll place candidates on the November ballot who stand for nothing and cater to the middle-of-the-road vote. And she argues that third-party candidates, such as the Libertarian and Green parties, will face nearly impossible obstacles. (Tobin happens to be running for secretary of state as the Libertarian candidate.)
But for the dug-in Democratic and Republican establishments, says longtime Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, there's an underlying fear of change: The Democratic majority has controlled the upper and lower houses of the Legislature almost every year since 1958, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Republicans are equally entrenched — as the vocal minority that fights taxes and holds up budgets.