“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our selves…” Cassius to Brutus, Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare
Democrats and other detractors of California’s “top two” primary system have been whining ever since the June 3 primary election that it would be wrong to have two Republicans vie in the November general election for the state controller’s job, considered by many the fourth most significant statewide office.
It would just not be right, they say, for only Republicans to have a chance at this office, when Democrats far outnumber the GOP among California’s registered voters, by about 2.7 million at last count.
No one can be sure just now who the November contestants will be for this post, whose occupant is the state’s chief check writer and reports monthly on the inflow of taxes into public coffers.
Two Republicans and two Democrats now have a chance to make the runoff, with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who had just under 25 percent of the primary vote at this column’s deadline, seemingly assured a slot. Republican CPA David Evans, a former mayor of tiny California City, barely trailed both former Democratic Assembly Speaker John Perez of Los Angeles and Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, another Democrat. Each had between 21 and 22 percent of the primary vote as counting proceeded on late absentee ballots, damaged ballots and provisional votes.
Any of the three might make a runoff against Swearengin, with either Democrat the likely fall favorite if one gets that far.
This uncertainty could not have happened under the old primary system, which guaranteed all political parties a November slot. But voters in 2010 passed Proposition 14, putting only the top two primary election vote-getters for each post into the fall runoff starting in 2012.
But is it really the fault of the system that Democrats are threatened now with losing — conceding? blowing? — a statewide office for the first time in four years?
Might this actually be the Democrats’ own fault if it happens, the party insufficiently organized and disciplined to get behind one candidate? Might it be the Democrats’ own fault that they didn’t emphasize this race at all, figuring at least one of their candidates was sure to make the runoff since Evans had less campaign money than any other candidate drawing a significant vote for anything this spring? With absolutely no evidence to back the claim, some detractors of the top two system claimed immediately after the primary that Evans became a draw for voters who dislike women or ethnic politicians.
If that’s true, why didn’t all those folks also vote for former Minuteman movement leader Tim Donnelly for governor? Donnelly got just 14 percent of the vote running against fellow Republican Neel Kashkari, an Indian-American — 8 percent less than Evans pulled.
The real question in the controllers’ race wasn’t why four candidates bunched together so closely, but why so few Democrats bothered to vote in that contest.
The post-election critics didn’t appear to notice that all three Democrats running for controller together at last count had 336,000 fewer votes than Gov. Jerry Brown won while running with no serious Democratic opposition.
Does anyone suppose that if those 336,000 voters had bothered to turn a page or two and vote again, they might have changed things? In fact, had Perez and Yee simply split those Brown votes, instead of receiving none, both would be sitting pretty today, waiting for an all-Democratic runoff.
But Democrats were smug, figuring their large plurality among registered voters precluded anything like what might actually happen. They also cut their own party’s vote by passing a law last year putting all citizen initiatives on the November ballot, none in primaries. That meant voters had very little to interest them this spring, diminishing turnout to a record low.
It all goes to show that under top two, little can ever be taken for granted, and that all votes, all candidates and all tinkering must be taken seriously. Exactly what voters intended for the new system when they handily approved it in 2010.
— Reach Thomas Elias at [email protected] For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net