The June Primary: This is Democracy?
By Peter Schrag
Contrary to first impressions, there were a few signs of sanity in last week’s Top Two primary election results.
(1) Orly Taitz, the mother of all Birthers, got just over three percent of the vote in her campaign to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein – or at least to run against her in the November election. Elizabeth Emken, one of the 14 Republicans in the race, got 12 percent and will have that honor and spare the GOP the embarrassment of having a Birther as its standard bearer.
(2) The voters passed Proposition 28, the tweak in the state’s legislative term limits law, though we may never know whether it was because they thought they were liberalizing it by letting legislators serve twelve years in either house or tightening it by reducing the current total of 14 years – six in the Assembly, eight in the Senate. But we still have the anti-democracy of term limits – in essence a declaration of no confidence in ourselves as voters.
(3) Despite the fact that this was a presidential primary, and that both the state and the nation face horrific problems, voter turnout seems to have hit a record low. There are a lot of things to blame voters for (see below) but apathy in the face of last week’s political trivia and marginalia was not one of them.
But that was the best of it. In Riverside County’s 31st Congressional District, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 41-35 percent margin, two Republicans will be facing each other in November. There will be no Democrats on the November congressional ballot. That’s because four Democrats divided their party’s votes, but just two Republicans. So the Reps both made the finals but no Democrat did.
Meantime, the two well-regarded Democratic Congressmen, Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, who were thrown together into the new 30th Congressional District in the San Fernando Valley, will, as expected face off again in November.
Nor is the Berman-Sherman face-off the only Democratic intra-party contest. Yes, there’ll be a few Republican ones as well, but because there are more Democrats, and thus more Democratic districts, the great Top Two reform may become another reminder of Will Rogers’ classic aphorism: “I belong to no organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”
Some $5 million has already been spent in the Berman-Sherman race, probably a record. It’s more than likely that at least as much will be spent again in the November round.
And because Top Two requires primary candidates to reach all voters, not just the true believers in their own party, the new system is necessarily far more costly. Will that produce wiser, more thoughtful representation in Congress? Will it produce more moderates, like the goo-goo sponsors of the Top Two system hope it will? Or will it just make the politicians still more beholden to the interest groups that pony up the megabucks of campaign cash, further reduce California’s national influence and weaken the fractured left even more?
Unless late returns change the outcome, Proposition 29, the tobacco tax increase seems to have narrowly lost, proving again that with a lot of money an interest group can create enough confusion and uncertainty about any issue to get a negative vote. Where there’s a hint of doubt, voters generally vote no. And of course, without a lot of money, you can’t get anything on the ballot. Either way, the great Populist reform of 1911 is a game only the rich can play.
Cancer research, which is what most of the tobacco tax—all told some $800 million in the first year – was to fund, could hardly have been seen as the top priority in the list of the state’s most pressing needs, so maybe saving it for some better purpose is not all bad. It’s also possible that raising the tax from 87 cents a pack of cigarettes to $1.87 would have been a boon to the black market – chiefly Indian reservations that, as sovereign nations, are exempt from the tax.
But the outcome probably had a lot more to do with the ability of the tobacco companies to swamp the airwaves in their $47 million campaign – roughly four times what the supporters of the measure spent -- than concern about the more pressing needs of schools, universities, child care, and the other state programs that so badly need money.
The anti-smoking lobby has tried scores of times in the past three decades to raise the state’s tobacco tax, now among the lowest in the nation, both in the legislature and at the ballot box. With one minor exception, the industry beat those efforts back each time. Does that reflect the considered long-term wisdom of the electorate and its representatives? If you believe that you’ll believe anything.
There’s a lot we won’t know about this election cycle until November – and maybe not until well into next year, when the new members show their true colors, if any, and the pipers of 2012 begin calling the tune.
But the experience of the last few months is a powerful reminder that even the most promising fixes to old-fashioned democracy can bring consequences that their starry-eyed advocates never expected.
California’s history of the past thirty-plus years is replete with them – tax limits, term limits, spending limits, super-majority vote requirements for tax increases, the Top Two primary, convoluted school funding formulas, rigid local government subsidy requirements. It’s a long list, and there’s more on the way. The more fixes we pass, the bigger the mess we’re in.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in
the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and
columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost:
California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High
Stakes Experiment. His newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his archived columns here.