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West of Wisconsin

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, June 07, 2012

My right-wing friend, ginned up (literally) from his team's impending "victory" in Wisconsin, called me on Tuesday night. I took some of his glow off by noting that I, too, would have been hard-pressed to remove a governor who had committed no crime. Opposition to the recall did not necessarily signal affection for Gov. Scott Walker. Furthermore, I expressed my satisfaction in the electoral reforms being tried in California, changes that would weaken the partisan clubhouse in which my friend found political and social refuge.

The Wisconsin vote was not one of those pointless Hatfield and McCoy affairs, though the out-of-state millions pouring in gave it that air. In addition to not wanting to replace a governor over policy differences, many voters sympathetic to public employees also felt that their extravagant pay and benefits had to be reined in.

Politicians used the neutered terms "unaffordable" and "unsustainable" to justify their positions, but these obligations were also unfair to private-sector workers, who were getting nowhere that deal while having to pay for it. The decidedly liberal states of New York and Massachusetts also cut obligations to public employees without the in-your-face dramatics. No good comes from demonizing teachers, the most important members of our society.

Meanwhile, political events of greater national significance were happening out west. California had joined Washington state, Louisiana and Nebraska in offering primary voters one ballot containing all the qualifying candidates' names. In this system, the two contenders with the most votes end up on the November ballot. They could be two Republicans, two Democrats, two "others" or any combination of the above.

With everyone voting, the hotheads would have a harder time forcing their litmus-tested candidates on the general electorate. Voters in November may have more appetizing choices than a Republican who doesn't believe in birth control and a Democrat who thinks teachers should be able to retire at 53.

While such primary voting systems sap the kingmaking powers held by the bases of both parties, it most endangers the tea party and other Republican extremists. Democrats do have their radicals, but they're not nearly as "out there" as the Republicans'. In any case, the far left has been largely marginalized by Democratic leaders. These changes could revive the dying breed of Republican moderates. Politicians have often been forced to disown modern science and mainstream social views to win primaries. With single-ballot primaries, they can both preserve their dignity and run in November.

Here's an example out of central California. Rico Oller, a Republican signer of the silly no-new-taxes pledge, was on the primary ballot for a state assembly seat. So was Republican Frank Bigelow, who supported certain spending. The firebrand Oller offered this revealing reason for opposing open primaries using a single ballot: "Delivering a moderate Republican who can work with the governor (Democrat Jerry Brown) is code for raising taxes." Those are not universally held emotions, even among Republicans. Interestingly, business has been backing Bigelow and other Republican moderates because they want to end the partisan gridlock in state government.

It appears that the two top vote-getters in this generally conservative district were Oller and Bigelow. So come November, voters will have a choice between two different kinds of Republican rather than just a left-winger and a right-winger. Meanwhile, Democrats and independents will have their say.

Is this good for Democrats, who will probably have more Republicans to work with? Is it good for Republicans, who will be fielding more electable candidates in this very Democratic state? We shall see. But one thing seems obvious about the one-ballot primary: It's good for the democracy.

COPYRIGHT 2012 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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