Proposition 14: Campaign for open primaries rolls out of the gate

The fight over June’s marquee ballot measure, whether California should institute open primaries, has begun with a trickle of campaign spending and promotion that’s already bringing slick mailers to county doorsteps.

Proposition 14, which eludes the typical red-blue divide and has Democrats siding against Democrats and Republicans against Republicans, would allow anyone to vote for anyone in primary elections, regardless of party, and advance the top two vote-getters to the general race.

Supporters say the change would put more middle-of-the-road candidates in office and reduce the partisanship that causes gridlock. Opponents say the move would limit choice in general elections, putting two Democrats in competition sometimes, or two Republicans, and eliminating third-party candidates altogether.

The major parties, which could see their power erode and stand officially against the measure, helped defeat a similar open primary proposal in 2004, putting the onus now on an emerging and loosely strung coalition of supporters.

"If both parties are against this, that might just tell voters something ... and work for us," said state Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, whose advocacy landed Proposition 14 on the June 8 ballot.

Initial financial reports, due last week, show the campaign for open primaries has brought in nearly $350,000. The early contributions are from wealthy individuals such as Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad and Bay Area investment banker William Oberndorf, as well as a handful of insurance interests, such as Blue Shield of California and California Association of Health Underwriters.

"You will see other large contributions from all over California and all over the economic and political spectrum," said Fred Keeley, a spokesman for Proposition 14 and a former Democratic lawmaker in Santa Cruz.

Keeley says the governor’s commitment to the measure will ensure support, giving it a higher profile than its 2004 predecessor. Already, several business groups including the California Chamber of Commerce and Latin Business Association have submitted endorsements.

"It will be the more partisan entities opposing this because they like the way things are now," Keeley said.

Opponents of Proposition 14, who have yet to invest significantly in a campaign, say the measure isn’t going to attract the broad base its supporters allege.

Former Santa Cruz Assemblyman John Laird, a Democrat, says special interests who have not gotten their way with lawmakers in the past may see the measure as an opportunity to shake up the formula and win more say in the future.

The current Legislature has not been perceived as insurance-friendly, Laird said. That probably irritated insurance companies, causing them to come into this race.

Critics of the open primary defend present election methods as fair and effective, insisting the ability of party voters to choose who represents their party should be preserved.

"The question to me ultimately is who will determine who the Republican and Democratic nominees are," said California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring. Nehring said instead of having primaries decide the party’s candidates, Proposition 14 would mean party bosses choose the nominee, removing millions of Democrats and Republicans from the loop.

Democratic Party Chairman John Burton is also among the opponents of open primaries.

"It just never should have been put on the ballot," he said. "It’s not going to do anything but freeze out minor parties and make campaigning more expensive."

The coalition behind Proposition 14 says open primaries might not serve the political establishment, but they will serve voters.

"The current system is one which encourages people to run in the primary to the edge. Republicans run very hard right. Democrats run very hard left," Keeley said. "This measure will have a moderating influence on who gets elected. It will create a broader middle within the Legislature."

That broader middle, says campaign literature mailed to county households last week, would reduce the partisanship and break the political gridlock.