June 4, 2012
Theodore White, in The Making of The President: 1960, wrote one of the most lyrical and fitting tributes to our American electoral system. Since I can hardly hope to do better, I merely reproduce what he wrote about the election day of November 1960:
"What results from the fitting together of these secrets [people voting] is, of course, the most awesome transfer of power in the world - the power to marshal and mobilize, the power to send men to kill or be killed, the power to tax and destroy, the power to create and the responsibility to do so, the power to guide and the responsibility to heal - all committed into the hands of one man. Heroes and philosophers, brave men and vile, have since Rome and Athens tried to make this particular manner of transfer work effectively; no people has succeeded at it better, or over a longer period of time, than the Americans. Yet as this transfer of power takes place, there is nothing to be seen except an occasional line outside a church or school, or a file of people fidgeting in the rain, waiting to enter the booths. No bands play on election day, no troops march, no guns are readied, no conspirators gather in secret headquarters. The noise and blare, the bands and the screaming, the pageantry and oratory of the long fall campaign, fade on election day. All the planning is over, all effort spent. Now the candidates must wait." (pp. 3-4).
It is once again election eve in America; at least, it is out here in California (and in Wisconsin and in other places besides). It is not yet November; the final curtain is yet to fall for everyone. On primary day, though, a great number of candidates will wake in the morning as hopeful contenders and fall asleep in the evening as ordinary citizens once again. For them, it is a big day; for others, and indeed certainly for those who have already voted by mail, it is much more likely an ordinary Tuesday in June. White’s description is still largely true: there is little to be seen except an occasional line or the American flags by the highway that signal ‘polling place here.’
In California State Assembly District 50 – Santa Monica to Malibu, and inland to capture West Hollywood – the day will be very typical for June. At 6 am in Santa Monica it should be better than 95% overcast, warm and comfortable at 61 degrees. The morning fog should burn off mostly by about 10; on the beach it will be sixty degrees and sunny and beautiful for the rest of the day. Two of the four candidates will end the day disappointed in their quest to represent one of the quirkiest legislative districts anywhere in America.
Farther inland the fog clears up earlier and the days are warmer: in AD41, the highs should be in the mid-60s. Assembly District 41 is a horseshoe shaped district; it starts out in the Pasadena area (Pasadena, South Pasadena, and Altadena), runs through the sparsely populated foothills (and the national forest), and it picks up San Dimas, La Verne, Claremont, and Upland on the other end. Five candidates are competing here.
In Wilton California, outside of Sacramento, it might rain in the morning. AD8 stretches from Wilton to North Highlands to, farther East, to Rancho Murieta. The weather might actually be a bit warmer in the afternoon than in AD50 or AD41. The politics might be a bit warmer too: unlike in some of the other districts, AD8 is actually pretty competitive. This district has 40% Democratic registration and 37% Republican registration; that’s about as close as you’re going to find anywhere in the state. While only one Democrat is on the ballot, there are four Republicans and one Libertarian fighting for a spot.
These are just three of the eighty assembly races taking place tomorrow. There are also 53 congressional races, some state senate races, a race for United States Senator, and many others besides. Quite literally hundreds of people are offering themselves up for public service. It’s a popular thing these days to poke fun at our politicians and to caricature them as self-serving or idiotic. All the same, these men and women are fully committing themselves to the cause of public service. They are investing a large amount of their time and, in many cases, their own money. They are knocking on doors and calling people on the phone to advance the policies they believe in. They are exposing themselves to ridicule and all the negative attacks that are, and have always been, part of the hustle and bustle of Democratic politics. If they lose, they face the agony of defeat; if they win, they face the challenging prospect of trying to govern and legislate for a largely broke state or a largely broke country.
These candidates in California are also part of a great new experiment. In 2010 California voters, frustrated with the state’s politics, passed Proposition 14 in the June Primary. This changed the primary format from a “party choice” type primary to a “top-two.” Under the old system (in use from 2002-2010), registered Republicans could only vote for Republican candidates and registered Democrats could only vote for Democratic candidates. The parties could choose whether or not unaffiliated voters could also vote in their party primaries; generally, both parties allowed this. In the general election, the winner of each party primary competed to win the seat. In the top-two, any voter can vote for any candidate. The two candidates with the most votes go on to face each other in the general election.
If I had a dollar for every time tomorrow we are going to hear the phrase “regardless of party…”
The top-two might radically change California politics. It may not. Part of the premise behind Proposition 14 is that the unaffiliated voters will play a bigger role in state politics, for two reasons: one, the structure of the primary makes these voters possibly more likely to be pivotal; two, these voters are “independents.” In truth, a surprisingly large fraction of the unaffiliated voters identify with a political party; while many think of themselves as true independents, others think of themselves as strong Republicans or Democrats. On the other hand, the structure may make a big difference; in some ways, it won’t be until the results are all in that we’ll be able to tell ‘how big.’
In AD8, the effect of the top-two will likely be relatively small. While there are six candidates running in this competitive district, the most likely winners tomorrow would also have been the most likely winners under the old system. Ken Cooley is the only Democrat running in the race. With four Republicans and one Libertarian to split the remaining vote, he is almost assured a spot on the ballot. Among the remaining candidates, one of the Republicans is likely to pretty easily capture the second spot. Peter Tateishi, who has served as the Chief of Staff to Republican Congressman Dan Lungren, has the Sacramento Bee and Republican Party of California endorsements. He is pretty clearly the “establishment” candidate. Some of the other candidates made a decent effort: Barbara Ortega and John Thomas Flynn. Flynn has a hilarious serious of web advertisements called “Flynn’s Fundamentals” (currently available on youtube or from his website). Philip Tufi is another Republican in the race, whose website (as of 11:30 pm, June 4th) sports this photograph on its front page:
Incidentally, the person in the photograph is not Philip Tufi (I think it is his wife). Nevertheless, it shows the lengths politicians and their friends go to get extra votes (I hope those animals aren’t casting mail-in ballots!). Tufi also has produced some campaign materials in Russian (there is a photograph of a banner in Russian on his website), which shows how far we’ve come since 1955.
This race could be a lot more interesting if the Libertarian, Janice Bonser, had a more credible base of support. In her last effort she polled only about 3% of the vote. If she had pulled in closer to 10%, one could argue that she’d have a chance if the four Republicans split pretty evenly or if the Democrats engaged in massive strategic voting. There is little evidence of a Democratic effort to coordinate on selecting a weak Republican opponent, though. In any event, it is likely a Tateishi vs. Cooley contest in November – but only tomorrow will tell us that for sure.
In contrast, AD50 will produce quite a different type of contest. As mentioned, AD50 is one of the quirkiest districts in the country – and it has the candidates to match. There is an outstanding profile of the race in the L.A. Weekly (url: http://www.laweekly.com/2012-05-24/news/Betsy-Butler-Torie-Osborn-wealthy-Assembly-District-50/). The main point here is that the winners tomorrow are mostly likely two liberal Democrats, Betsy Butler and Torie Osborn, who hold nearly identical policy positions. A third Democrat in the race, Richard Bloom, also appears to have pretty similar policy preferences as well. The Republican candidate is a bit atypical: Brad Torgan is one of the Log Cabin Republicans and supports both gay marriage and abortion rights.
The interesting themes in AD50 have to do with how candidates are selected. The summary version is that Butler is the clear establishment choice. She’s a sitting Assemblywoman now and has the party endorsement. She’s also just recently moved into the district to run; her old district is actually farther south and, with redistricting, is now much more competitive. She is a traditional party team player – and, apparently, is looking for a good seat to continue her rise through state politics. Osborn is the local candidate, with a lot of local endorsements. It’s quite clear she hoped to get the party endorsement; she and Butler appear to be bitter political enemies in a race that has divided a normally politically unified community. Richard Bloom is currently the Mayor of Santa Monica; he’s tried to stay above the fray but doesn’t appear to have enough money to really compete in a race that is going to cost several hundred thousand dollars. (While nowhere near the several million spent in the Berman-Sherman race, this is still a lot for what basically amounts to fratricide in a year with so many tight races across the country between candidates that actually hold different policy positions).
It will be interesting to see how well Torgan does in the district. About 20% of the district’s voters are registered Republicans; depending on how the Democrats and unaffiliated voters spit between the three Democrats, there is an outside chance Torgan could sneak into 2nd place. Torgan might be able to come close if the fierce contest between Butler and Osborn sends some disaffected Democrats to Bloom. In any case, it is somewhat humorous that the gay supporter of gay marriage and abortion rights is the outrageous conservative in this race and that the Mayor of the “People’s Republic of Santa Monica” (a local joke) is insufficiently liberal to get much attention. Or, perhaps, he has not dispatched enough baby bottles (see: http://blogs.laweekly.com/informer/2012/04/betsy_butler_assembly_campaign.php).
The most amazing thing about politics in AD50 are that, for all the differences, the politics in the district would be recognizable in just about any district in America. We have the party insider and the local challenger. We have the candidate who tries to stay above the fray. We have the candidate that launches a long-shot challenge from a weaker party. We have accusations that one of the candidates is a “carpetbagger” because she did not live in the district until recently. We have accusations of candidates packing meetings. Insults are hurled around. Ads are left on doorsteps and signs go up in yards. We have the party squabbles. The issue positions are different, of course, but the mechanisms are universal.
The four horsemen:
Butler (top left), Osborn (top right), Bloom (bottom left), and Torgan (bottom right).
The influence of the top-two on AD50 is obvious. The most likely outcome is that the November election features two Democrats. Nevertheless, it also shows that there may be weaknesses to the theory: while Butler and Osborn certainly have different styles, it is not clear that the result is the election of a more ‘pragmatic’ candidate or a more ‘moderate’ candidate. Indeed, both Butler and Osborn seem to have located on the same ideological position and it is not clear that either has much interest in compromise with the Republican Party (note: this is in a “big picture” sense --- I am sure that neither Butler nor Osborn would agree that such a statement is accurate).
The situation in AD41 is somewhat different. While the district leans Democratic, it is certainly not anything like AD50 in that regard. Some of the South-West parts of the district and far eastern parts of the district actually tend Republican. In this district, at least one candidate is making an effort to ‘run to the center’ in a crowded field of relatively credible candidates. This tests another theory of the top-two: is it possible to run from the center?
The candidates in this race are very interesting. Chris Holden represents the traditional Democratic Party: he’s endorsed by the state party and he’s a second generation California politician. On the other side, Donna Lowe lists herself as one of the founders of the Claremont Conservative Tea Party; she’s endorsed by the California Republican Party and, surprisingly, The Pasadena Star News. Two other candidates, Michael Cacciotti (South Pasadena City Council, D) and Ed Colton (R), can also possibly pull in a number of votes. The most interesting candidate, though, is Victoria Rusnak. Using a large amount of her own family wealth (and blessed with decent name recognition; most of the nice cars in Pasadena came from a Rusnak car dealership) she’s mounting a centrist campaign. Although she is now listed as a Democrat she was registered DTS for some time; many of her campaign materials do not identify her party. Additionally, she has been sending mailers to Republican households (in an effort to get crossover votes?).
(See LA Times Article: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-nasty-campaigns-20120604,0,3363088.story)
These three Assembly races – AD8, AD41, and AD50 – cover some of the most important themes from tomorrow’s election. It will be, no doubt, an interesting day to observe California politics. It will also be a great day to be a Californian and to be an American. Not only will Californians across the state go out to exercise their right to vote but also they will do it in the best of California’s traditions: in a hopeful experiment, in an effort to get a better future, in pursuit of a dream. Despite the intensity of the disagreements over policy and style between the two major parties, it is still remarkable how much all the politicians have in common: a desire to serve, a vision for the future, and the willingness to put themselves out there and go for it. And, despite the differences between the voters, they will all stand in line next to each other tomorrow and all wear the same ‘I voted’ sticker.
Until tomorrow night’s results, then: “thank you, God bless you, and goodnight.”
--- Stag Staff
ps. For detailed analysis of all state races, buy a copy of the "California Target Book." Resources used to put this together: the Target Book, all the candidate websites, the LA Times, LA Weekly, & The Pasadena Star News --- as well as the ever reliable Google search.
LA Times: spending on the primary is about twice what it was in 2010.
LA Times: Sherman leads Berman --- in what will likely be the race people remember from 2012 CA.
LA Weekly: More on Sherman-Berman:
Pasadena Star News: Runs the AP story:
Flynn on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1OoneLrnMk
Quick Notes on What Happened:
I had Walker in Wisconsin as the winner - but I was surprised that the two sides were so far apart.
AD8: Cooley made the top two, as expected; Tateishi barely edged a surprisingly strong Ortega. So, I guessed right here, but it was closer on the R side than I expected.
AD41: Holden and Lowe, as expected, are the top two. We were right about that --- but Rusnak came in a distant 5th despite the Star News endorsement. She got hammered in the final days by Holden's negative mail; perhaps that took a big toll. In any case, we have establishment Democrat versus Tea Party Republican - the median voter theorem goes out the window in AD41 in November.
AD50: Butler and Bloom were the winners in what was very nearly a four-way tie. I expected Butler and Osborn to each get about 30% of the vote; instead, each candidate got very close to 25%. Torgan, the Republican, did much better than expected. Bloom did surprisingly well, especially considering how much less he spent than either Butler or Osborn. So, got one, but not both.
Overall, for picking the candidates in those six spots, the Stag Hunt was 5-1; 6-1 if you count Wisconsin (which was starting to be obvious, if you followed the story, despite some media outlet efforts to make it seem like a close race.)
--- Stag Staff
Torie Osborn posts her thoughts reflecting on the election -- interesting throughout but her comments about the demand for systemic change jumped out at me:
But, even my voters on the liberal west side of L.A. mistrust our institutions, especially government. Whether it was Malibu residents upset about the state’s plan to restore their beloved Lagoon or Beverly Hills voters fighting the subway under the high school, I was shocked at how strongly even otherwise liberal folks believe that moneyed interests have corrupted policy-making. There is widespread belief that bond monies have bought off environmental groups’ on the Malibu Lagoon, and that Century City commercial interests “own” the MTA and therefore thwart Beverly Hillers on the subway route. On the other hand, that same strain of populist anti-institutional bias gave me an opening to talk about Prop 13 and its indefensible corporate loophole. People are open to new ideas, if the case is made coherently.
I will say that, with a lot of work, and, over time, I was able to tap into a dammed-up river of hope — hope that there will be somebody running for office who “gets it” about how broken things are and offers commonsense solutions. People want fresh ideas from trusted sources.
It seems that the "government-isn't-efficient" argument trumpeted by the anti-tax crowd resonates deeper than partisan affiliation and that Governor Brown's tax measure is in for the fight of its life.
In terms of a balanced, well researched take on the complexity and potential inefficiencies in the state budget, the San Jose Mercury News has the must read.