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New Blood for State Primary

California has played host to some of the most dramatic presidential primary elections in American political history. There was Barry Goldwater’s victory over Nelson Rockefeller in the GOP primary in June 1964; Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s win in 1968, nullified moments later by a gunman’s bullet, and George McGovern over Hubert H. Humphrey in 1972.

And then. . . . Well, that’s about it. California’s June primary quickly became an exercise in political impotence. With presidential campaigns beginning earlier and earlier, California’s primary became ever more meaningless.

State lawmakers decided to do something about this before the 1996 elections, moving the primary up to the fourth week in March for that one election only. That would make California a massive factor early in the nomination process, everyone thought. But not to be outdone, some 20 other states pushed their primaries even earlier. By the time the presidential cavalcade finally got to California, it was all over.

Lacking new legislation, the primary reverts to the old June date in 2000. But Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) is sponsoring legislation strongly backed by Republican Secretary of State Bill Jones to move the 2000 primary even earlier, to the first week in March. The measure passed its first test in Senate committee this past week and deserves speedy approval and the signature of Gov. Pete Wilson.

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This time, it’s not likely other states would squeeze ahead of California; to do so would conflict with New Hampshire’s sacrosanct first-in-the-nation primary and the Iowa caucuses.

But Jones is thinking even further ahead. He is urging Washington and Oregon to join California in holding their primaries on March 7, 2000. This would create a regional primary that candidates could not ignore. In the process, it might diminish the disproportionate impact of the events in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Ultimately, Jones and many of his fellow secretaries of state support a series of four or five regional primaries to be held on successive weeks. The regions would be rotated every election so that each area would have an opportunity to go first every 16 or 20 years.

Jones commented: “By virtue of California doing this, it forces this process to a conclusion that would be good for the entire country.”

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Indeed it would. Such a system would add some balance and logic to a primary season now skewed by early events in two small states.


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