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Unions, trial lawyers, and major parties band together to fight nonpartisan, open primary initiative

by Greg Lucas, published

Less than a month before the June election, a strange-political-bedfellows coalition of public employee unions and the state GOP party announced May 11 their opposition to Proposition 14, which would eliminate partisan primaries and allow the top two vote-getters – regardless of party – to advance to a November run-off.

Previously, opposition to the constitutional amendment has largely been raised by representatives of minor political parties who say their small numbers would preclude them from ever advancing to the November run-off.

Among the other groups announcing their opposition was the California School Employees Association, the largest classified school employees union in the United States, with more than 190,000.  “The thing that concerns me is that this system would … narrow the playing field rather than expand it,” said Allan Clark, the union’s president on a conference call with reporters.  Clark’s union is a strong supporter of Democratic candidates, both for the Legislature and statewide office.

On the press release announcing the conference call, the title of the “no” committee was “No on 14 Protect Voter Choice.” The listed sponsors were “teachers, school employees, consumer attorney and labor organizations.”

That means that in addition to the financial support of the school employees union, the California Teachers Association, trial lawyers and other public labor unions will contribute. Like the school employees union, all are major contributors to Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party.

Among the criticisms raised by opponents are that Proposition 14 would allow candidates to mask their political affiliation, cheating voters of a general yardstick as to the views a candidate espouses, and that campaigns would be more expensive as candidates need to reach a larger number of voters in both the primary and the fall election.

Republicans, including Jon Fleischman, a vice chair of the state Republican party, said that Proposition 14’s intended purpose of electing more moderate public officials would lead to higher taxes.  “There will be a new caucus of Abel’s in the Legislature who will team up with Democrats to raise taxes,” said Fleischman, referring to Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado who insisted Proposition 14 be placed on the ballot before voting in February 2009 with Democrats to pass a budget containing more than $12.5 billion in temporary tax increases. 

Supporters counter that Proposition 14 will actually create cheaper campaigns, give minor party candidates a better shot of reaching the November election in some legislative districts, and not lead to higher taxes.  “Under an open primary system, the Capitol will be filled with representatives who are accountable to the people who put them into office - not party bosses, who currently pull the strings,” Said Amanda Fulkerson, a spokeswoman for the “yes” campaign.  “If Californians are unhappy with the decisions being made then they will vote their representatives right out of office.”

Minor party candidates, who have succeeded in local non-partisan elections, would have a great chance of success under Proposition 14, supporters claim, since it is, in essence, a local non-partisan race.

As to campaign costs, supporters counter that by not having to appeal to one bloc of voters in the primary and another in the general, campaigns will be cheaper.  “Candidates will likely save money since it will no longer behoove them to pander to one portion of the electorate in the primary then shift their message after June,” Fulkerson said. “They can use the same materials to maintain a consistent message and show voters who they really are.”

Opposition to an open primary type system of voting is one of the few areas of agreement between Democrats and Republicans.  The strange-political-bedfellows coalition has occurred before. The California Democratic Party and the state GOP sued to outlaw Proposition 198, a 1996 initiative allowing voters to cast ballots in any party’s primary on an office-by-office basis. The political parties argued that law violated the U.S. Constitution’s right of political association by allowing non-party members to select party candidates.

After two primaries under Proposition 198 -- June 1998 and March 2000 -- the U.S. Supreme Court declared the measure unconstitutional.

The political parties banded together again in 2004 to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot, Proposition 60, that guaranteed the right of a party participating in a primary to appear on the November ballot.  In part, Proposition 60’s goal was to confuse voters – an open primary proposal similar to Proposition 14 was on the same ballot – and nullify the rival measure, Proposition 62, if it passed.

Proposition 62 failed. Proposition 60 was passed by an over two-thirds vote. Proposition 14 would repeal its provisions.

It’s unclear how successful the anti-Proposition 14 will be.  While both Fleischman and Clark said their respective groups would raise “hundreds of thousands of dollars” and that vote “no” on Proposition 14 advertising was being purchased on slate mailers, the only contribution logged so far to the GOP-controlled “Save Voter Choice, No on 14” committee is $50,000 from Sen. Jeff Denham, a Merced Republican.

During the first three months of 2010, the “yes” campaign raised $739,000, spent $967,000 and had an ending balance of $328,00 on March 17.

Since the close of the last campaign finance reporting period in march, the “yes” campaign has received $520,000 from the California Chamber of Commerce political action committee which would be unlikely to contribute so generously to a campaign it thought would lead to higher taxes for its members.  Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political action committee has also kicked in $1.75 million.

Schwarzenegger has scheduled a Sacramento reception on May 24 and a dinner at his Brentwood home May 18 to raise money for the campaign.  A $50,000 contribution yields 10 tickets to the reception, two tickets to the post-reception cigar smoking, and one ticket to dinner at the governor’s home.

“We have raised sufficient amounts of money to be aggressive in this statewide campaign,” said Clark, who said the money, for “tactical reasons,” wouldn’t be filed with the Secretary of State until later in the week. “(The contributions have) come from a broad base of different groups. I believe we’re going to be OK.”

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