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.)
Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, agrees that “smaller political parties could be marginalized.”
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.
Moderate Republicans such as Schwarzenegger and Maldonado hope the open primary system will break the Democratic stranglehold and usher in at least a few more moderate Republicans.
Carrick says “Schwarzenegger and other moderate Republicans think [Prop. 14] will be a fix” — by allowing fiscally concerned, more moderate Democratic voters to help elect moderate fiscal watchdogs, either Republican or Democrat.
Carrick calls that a fantasy. Still, he sees Prop. 14 passing in June. “There's so much anger about Sacramento and the state Legislature,” he says, “and people are going to vote for it. It's something that has a lot of appeal for the average voter. They'll say, 'Hey, open is good, more choices are good.'”
Under the “top two” rule, though, voting districts with little political diversity — such as heavily Democratic Los Angeles, where no Republicans, Greens or Libertarians get much support — are likely to choose two Democrats to face each other in the general election. In San Diego, the top-two rule could create the opposite situation: Two Republicans would face each other in November.
Nobody knows what these same-party opponents will do to distinguish themselves in the general election. And that kind of change strikes fear into the two big parties.
Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group that regularly deals with the state Legislature, thinks fear is a good thing. “I believe in the power of fear to get progressive change,” says Court. “Right now, there are too many safe seats occupied by unresponsive politicians.”
Court, whose outfit has no position on Prop. 14, says, “The more politicians worry at every stage of the election process, the more good it will be for the public.”
The politicians must be worried. Already, political analysts are suggesting that the Democratic and Republican parties will scheme to declaw the law if it passes — possibly by hand-selecting several candidates for each primary race, and persuading some of them to campaign as if they are independent-minded moderates.
At the end of the day, though, Court reasons, “Any time both parties come out against something, it's probably a good thing to vote for.”