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Elections and Party Politics

For most of this century, local elections in California, while not entirely immune from partisan influence, have been relatively free of overt political party activity. That, unfortunately, is about to change--unless the well-reasoned views of Orange County Democratic Chairman Bruce Sumner prevail, or the state Legislature acts.

Orange County Democratic leaders have challenged the county Republican central committee to sign a mutual agreement that would bar both political parties from making endorsements in local, traditionally nonpartisan races. That’s a sound, reasonable approach.

The call for partisan restraint that came out of a county Democratic central committee meeting was in response to a Dec. 27 California Supreme Court decision ruling that the state Constitution does not prevent political parties from making endorsements in such races, even though it prohibits them from nominating candidates for nonpartisan office.

Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove) has introduced a bill that seeks to prohibit any political party from endorsing, supporting or opposing anyone running for any judicial seat. It recognizes the First Amendment rights of free speech and expression by not prohibiting any political party officer from making a personal endorsement.

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Robinson’s bill falls short of what is needed to protect local nonpartisan offices, such as city councils, county boards and school and special district boards, from party activities.

Partisan political activity inevitably gets mixed up in nonpartisan campaigns because of the involvement of prominent party figures. They have every right as individuals to make their views known. But Sumner’s proposal is born of experience. He is a retired judge and formerly served as a state legislator. He notes that there is a “great difference” between campaign participation by individuals and the formal entry of parties into the race. When the party gets involved, the party’s support can become a prerequisite for seeking nonpartisan office.

Sumner’s suggestion has not been well received by Orange County GOP leaders. And even if an agreement for the county is worked out, there will remain the need for state legislation.

Nonpartisan politics has served local government in California well. Most nonpartisan governments have been free from the corruption and spoils system associated with partisan local governments in some other states. That was the intent of the state when Gov. Hiram Johnson in the early 1900s made local government in California nonpartisan. There is no cause to change that proven approach.

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