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Two Democrats take top spots in top-two open primary [Updated]

by Damon Eris, published

Voters in California’s 36th Congressional District headed to the polls yesterday to cast their ballots in the first special election for a US House seat to be held under the state’s new top-two open primary system.  The semi-official tally indicates that Democrats Janice Hahn and Debra Bowen will proceed to the special general election on July 12. 

With 100% of precincts reporting, LA City Councilwoman Janice Hahn came first in the race with 24.7% support.  In second place was Secretary of State Debra Bowen at 21.5%.  Bowen was followed by Republican businessman Craig Huey, who had garnered 20.4% of the vote.  Republican Mike Gin and progressive Democrat Marcy Winograd rounded out the top five. 

[Update:  Craig Huey has now pulled ahead of Bowen in the still semi-official tally of the County of Los Angeles Department of Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk.  Huey now has 21.87% support to Bowen's 21.48%, and leads by 206 votes. Stay tuned...]

Under special primary election rules, if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, only the top two proceed to the general election.  In the present case, Hahn and Bowen, the top two, did not garner a majority of votes even when their totals are combined! 

Turnout was extremely low over the course of the day.  Just 7.6% of the district’s roughly 350,000 voters had gone to the polls by 4pm, according to local reports.  In the end, only 15% of registered voters cast a ballot in the race. Perhaps they were turned off by the tenor of the contest between Bowen and Hahn.  In the final days before the primary, each side pointed out that the other is beholden to corporate interests rather than those of the people.

     "The fact is, Debra Bowen has accepted more than $300,000 in special interest money from big oil, health insurance & drug companies, gambling interests, Wall Street banks, big phone companies, developers and even Enron," said the Hahn campaign in a mailer sent out last week.  

The Bowen campaign responded, stating that Hahn had herself received hundreds of thousands of dollars from lobbyists, developers and a medical malpractice insurance group, as well as about $20,000 in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests. 

Fortunately, then, they were not the only two candidates in the primary race, though they will likely be the only two candidates in the general election runoff. Nonetheless, individuals who chose not to squander the opportunity to vote in the primary had a wide array of candidates to choose from, including three other Democrats, six Republicans, three Independents, one Peace and Freedom Party candidate, and one Libertarian. 

One of the Independent candidates in the race, Matthew Roozee, a business executive and mathematician, had touted his lack of experience in politics as an asset to his candidacy.  "I have no experience driving the City of Angels into the ground or in bankrupting the Golden State," said Roozee, contrasting himself with Hahn and Bowen during a debate held late last month in Venice.  Roozee garnered less than 1% of the vote according to the semi-official tally at the Secretary of State’s office.

Another Independent candidate in the race, Michael Chamness, ran primarily in opposition to the top-two open primary itself.  Indeed, as he reportedly stated during the Venice debate, his candidacy was aimed primarily at mounting a case against the new primary system itself.  He even endorsed Democrat Marcy Winograd. 

Earlier this year, Chamness filed a lawsuit against Bowen in her capacity as Secretary of State, arguing that the implementing law for Proposition 14 – namely, Senate Bill 6, passed in February 2009 – is unconstitutional on the grounds that it discriminates against Independent candidates and minor parties.  In fact, some voters might have noticed yesterday that there were no “Independent” candidates listed on their ballot.  This was not a matter of chance.  Senate Bill 6 does not allow any candidate to list their affiliation as “Independent” on the ballot.  Instead, candidates who would have been allowed to call themselves “Independent” under the old system are now made to state that they have “no party preference.”  As a member of the so-called Coffee Party, which is not officially recognized by the state, Chamness’s suit alleges that SB6 effectively forces him to lie to voters because it does not allow him to state his actual party preference on the ballot. 

Oral arguments in Chamness’s suit are scheduled for June 13, despite recent efforts by Bowen’s office to have the matter postponed.  If the suit prevails, Prop 14 would effectively be put on hold until the legislature tweaked the law to bring it into accordance with the ruling.