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GOP Bullies Its Business Patrons Into Scuttling Election Reform

SACRAMENTO

Business interests thought they had a good idea. An idea worth debating, at least: Reform the primary election system to make it more hospitable to moderate, mainstream candidates.

Elect pragmatic legislators who aren’t ideologues. Who are willing to compromise and deal.

This present bunch, after all, can’t even agree on a resolution to support America’s troops in Iraq. That’s how gridlocked it is.

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Nobody really gives a hoot about the California Legislature’s opinion of a foreign war.

But business interests do care when Democrats push for more environmental regulations, higher worker benefits and stiffer fees -- and when Republicans resist providing money for highways, schools and water needed in a burgeoning state.

Get some people up here who will reason through these problems and not cower in fear of their party’s extremists. And not be extremists themselves.

But it wasn’t to be. The politicians felt threatened. Their jobs were at stake. And all this “moderate” talk -- many in the Capitol took that personal.

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So Republicans, cheered on by Democrats, bullied their business patrons into shelving the reform. Strong-armed with body language and tongue lashings. It’s another tale in a long saga about the resistance of political systems to political reform.

Let’s back up:

In 1996, Californians overwhelmingly passed an open primary initiative. For the next two primaries, people could vote for any candidate, regardless of party. Turnout rose. But party pooh-bahs went bonkers.

The Supreme Court -- a political creature itself -- sided with the parties. It ruled that California’s open primary violated the 1st Amendment by forcing parties to associate with people who didn’t share their beliefs.

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Back we went to a closed primary that forbids cross-party voting. Candidates no longer needed to appeal to centrist voters. The battleground was on the Republican right or Democratic left, among the ideologues. Turnout fell.

Aggravating matters, legislators of both parties gerrymandered their districts to protect the political status quo. Seats became either safely Republican or safely Democrat. Practically every election was decided in the primary. General elections became foregone conclusions.

Then up stepped the state Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable. Last fall, they began pushing their own open primary proposal.

This new system would be nonpartisan, thus presumably constitutional. The candidates’ party affiliations would be listed on the ballot. But there would be no party nominations. The two top vote-getters, regardless of party, would run off in November, similar to the way Californians choose their mayors.

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Parties still could influence races by pitching candidates.

“We can’t let this state get to the point where it is governed by ideologues on either end of the spectrum,” said Bill Hauck, the Business Roundtable president.

Not so fast, lawmakers responded. Those are our jobs. Our ideologies. Maybe they didn’t say that publicly. But this was their mind-set and message.

Republicans also worried about political pragmatics.

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They’re the powerless party in Sacramento. Special interests don’t invest in them like they do Democrats. Their campaign pot is smaller. When there is only a handful of competitive general election races, Republicans can sharpshoot their funds -- as they did last November while picking up three legislative seats. But if there are many competitive contests, they’re forced to shotgun the money less effectively.

Beyond that, office holders are human. They don’t like putting their jobs on the line.

Clearly, the Legislature was not going to place this proposal on the ballot. So the business groups began soliciting $2 million from their members to collect voter signatures for an initiative. The ballot campaign would cost another $8 million.

The business groups forgot one thing: They’re part of the Sacramento system. Politicians and interests feed on each other as both parasites and hosts.

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Legislators need campaign donations from business -- but, even more desperately, business needs the lawmakers’ votes.

Irritated Republicans let big business know their displeasure.

Recalls chamber President Alan Zaremberg: “Some of our companies started to second-guess their enthusiasm. And whenever our lobbyist would try to discuss issues [with lawmakers] the first question was, ‘Is your boss still pushing that stupid open primary?’ ”

Says Hauck: “We got a lot of pressure from legislative leaders of both parties.... When you’re doing [lobbying] jobs like these, you have to pay attention to what the impact might be.”

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Little money. Strained relationships. They gave up.

This idea deserves debate, not muzzling. But the sponsor can’t be a Capitol player vulnerable to legislative bullying.


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