Six political lessons from Tuesday’s state primary
Here’s a quick and simple postmortem for Tuesday’s scarcely noticed California primary.
First, what did it all mean -- especially for the November general election? What’s the overarching message from voters?
“It doesn’t mean much, if anything,” says Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which chronicles congressional and legislative races.
“It wasn’t an election with any kind of strong currents,” adds veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick.
But there were some old lessons re-taught and maybe one or two new ones learned.
In no particular order:
Lesson 1: Carpetbaggers are welcome in California.
State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) won a bruising congressional primary 400 miles north of his legislative district despite constantly being assailed as a carpetbagging “L.A. politician.”
“Geography doesn’t matter in California,” says Democratic consultant Darry Sragow. “ ‘Carpetbagger’ is a non-issue. California’s culture is, ‘I don’t care where you’re from. What are you doing now?’ ”
McClintock, who previously has run unsuccessfully for statewide office, was a familiar hard-core conservative to Republican voters in the GOP district that stretches from the Oregon border to the Sacramento suburbs. After his lopsided victory Tuesday over Doug Ose, a moderate former congressman, McClintock asserted that his brand of true conservatism represents a national “bellwether for the future direction of our party.”
Republican Tony Quinn, co-editor of the Target Book, counters that it points to the need for open primaries, where voters of all parties can participate. “In our closed primaries, the wing-nuts dictate the Republican nominees and labor dictates the Democrats,’ ” Quinn says. “You get the most right-wing Republicans and the most left-wing Democrats.”
Normally, yes. And that leads to a highly partisan, polarized, paralyzed Legislature.
Lesson 2: Politicians should have a focused message, a clear identification.
Former Assemblywoman Fran Pavley won a landslide victory over Assemblyman Lloyd Levine for the Democratic state Senate nomination in Santa Monica and Malibu. That was largely because there is no confusion about what Pavley stands for. She’s widely known as a protector of the environment. Indeed, she’s the real mother of the 2006 anti-global warming bill hijacked by then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and ultimately claimed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Levine’s political persona, however, is a mishmash -- ranging from an advocate of dog spaying to a crusader against incandescent lightbulbs to a champion of physical fitness.
Lesson 3: The business lobby can influence Democratic politics, even in a largely minority district.
Former Assemblyman Rod Wright, a moderate, defeated liberal Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally -- reversing the pattern of leftist victories -- in a South Los Angeles Senate district after business donors invested roughly $1 million in Wright’s campaign.
“Business has tended to stay out of black politics,” says Sragow, who advises the business lobby. “But some black politicians ask, ‘Why? We’re always out looking for economic development in our districts.’
“The business community has decided it can’t get a Republican Legislature, so it will play in districts where there’s a Democratic candidate it can work with.”
Of course, in an election year where voters are grumpy and seeking change, it didn’t help Dymally, 82, that his political career reaches back 46 years.
Lesson 4: It’s the year of political change.
Former NBA star and Sacramento native Kevin Johnson is a good example. Despite being a wooden campaigner and having his character repeatedly attacked -- there were unproven charges of inappropriately fondling teenage girls -- the voters’ desire for new leadership was so strong that Johnson outran two-term Mayor Heather Fargo. At the very least, Johnson forced Fargo into a November runoff. After all the absentee ballots are counted, he conceivably could wind up with a majority of votes and be elected outright without a runoff.
The business-friendly Democratic sports hero then would be considered a rising California political star.
Lesson 5: Celebrity still counts in California. (See above example.)
Lesson 6: All politics is local.
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) committed a costly blunder by spending roughly $2 million of his fellow Democrats’ political money on a foolish attempt to recall Republican Sen. Jeff Denham of Atwater merely because the GOP lawmaker had refused to vote for last summer’s unbalanced state budget. At least, that’s what Perata said was the reason. Nobody knows for sure. But 76% of the voters in the sprawling San Joaquin Valley district rejected the Sacramento-orchestrated recall.
Facing a certain shellacking, Perata abandoned the recall a few weeks before the election. But other Democratic senators privately griped that the termed-out Senate leader had recklessly spent money that could have been used trying to save a colleague, Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), who was beaten Tuesday by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco).
Ordinarily, this political sin might be considered egregious enough to get Perata ousted as leader. He’s out in September anyway, and his replacement already has been chosen, Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). There’s a lot of restlessness in the Capitol and desire for fresh leadership. But nobody seems to be up for a fight. And every senator has a higher priority -- mainly their own legislative agenda, another example of all politics being local.
One quick final observation: The primary system is a confusing debacle, nationally and in California.
The national parties need to seize control and create an orderly presidential nominating process. Forbid any state from holding a contest before March.
Then California could return to conducting a joint presidential and state primary, preferably in April or May. Keep it on that date permanently. No more bouncing around.
That sounds simple. And it ought to be. But pathetically it’s too difficult for our political leaders.