Moderates see hope in top-two primary

Sacramento Bee, 5/20/12.

by Dan Morain

Mods seem to be on the rise, and that’s good for California, although partisans remain convinced that the middle of the road is a place for yellow streaks and dead skunks.

Heading into the June 5 primary, big money is flowing into state legislative races where Republicans and Democrats who are seen as moderates have a chance of advancing to the November runoff.

Several Republicans, who are beneficiaries of five- and six-figure independent expenditures, have refused to sign the no-tax pledge, a departure from the past when almost all Republicans took the insidious pledge. Democrats who are benefiting from the spending have crossed some unions.

While their nominations are far from assured, the mods are in the game because of the new top-two primary system and because the Citizens Redistricting Commission, not legislators and political insiders, drew legislative boundaries.

Two wealthy political donors, one a Democrat and one a Republican, helped bring about the changes and are taking them for a test spin.

Republican Charles T. Munger Jr. funded initiatives that stripped the Legislature of its power to draw districts. In recent weeks, he has spent more than $700,000 to help Republicans win primaries.

Richard Temple, a Republican consultant working for Munger’s campaign committee, said his goal is not elect moderates but rather candidates “who will talk to one another rather than yell at one another.”

Munger doesn’t have obvious financial interests in the outcome of elections. But he allied himself with the California Dental Association, a major spender and inside player.

Not that the dentists are a shady group. But they want to make sure that the state continues to fund dental care for poor people, and understand that taxpayer-funded dentistry could be yanked as the budget deficit deepens and as lawmakers remain in a state of gridlock over taxes.

Munger has spent $136,000 to help Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Roseville. Gaines’ stand on issues is generally the same her challenger, Andy Pugno, the lawyer who wrote Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage. But she’s seen as less strident.

Munger and the dentists also have spent of $250,000 to help nominate Newport Beach City Councilwoman Leslie Daigle, a Republican who won’t sign the no-tax pledge. The California Republican Party is sticking by its man, Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, who has signed the no-tax pledge, and dismisses pledge critics “special interests.”

“I think we’re taxed enough,” Mansoor said.

The no-tax pledge plays well with Republican voters. But lobbyists see the pledge for what it is, counterproductive. Republicans who sign it take themselves out of negotiations over the basic legislative functions of writing budgets and tax policy.

Jon Fleischman, who publishes the conservative blog FlashReport, is alarmed by the shift to the middle, worrying that wayward Republicans and their funders seek to create “one party, the party of government.”

“Conservatives need to engage and more strongly support the candidates who think that raising taxes is not an option,” Fleischman said.

Fleischman sent emails to Republican candidates last week urging that they sign the pledge. One recipient was John Thomas Flynn, running for an Assembly seat that covers Carmichael and Fair Oaks. The email asked that he respond that day because Fleischman was preparing to blog about non-signers.

“In response to your threat, in the immortal words of General (Anthony) McAuliffe: NUTS!” Flynn answered, a reference to the World War II general’s answer to the German demand that he surrender during the Battle of the Bulge.

Not that signing or not signing the no-tax pledge is on a par with life, death or the battle for the American Way. But Flynn, whose Republican pedigree dates to President Ronald Reagan’s administration when he was an appointee, is in a state of despair for his Grand Old Party.

“We’ve got to change the party or else California is going to go to hell in a handbasket,” Flynn said.

Flynn’s Republican opponents, Barbara Ortega and Peter Tateishi, also reject the pledge. Similarly, in the three most hotly contested state Senate races, leading Republican candidates have rejected the pledge, as they prepare to face well-funded Democrats in November.

Among Democrats, the issue isn’t taxes but rather their stands on labor and business issues. The California Chamber of Commerce and groups including Realtors, insurance companies and charter school advocates are spending heavily on Democrats they see as moderate.

“It is all about getting a few good legislators,” said Democratic investor David Crane, who spent $250,000 a committee, Govern for California, to help moderates.

Crane can take a measure of credit for the top-two primary. An adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Crane presented him with the concept, and Schwarzenegger, a critic of the GOP’s hard-line stand, championed the new primary system.

In the top-two primary, candidates can draw votes from within their own party as well as from voters from the opposite party and those who decline to state a party preference. In theory, candidates who appeal to the middle will emerge from the primary.

Crane is preparing to spend heavily to help Democrat Brian Johnson, a 34-year-old charter school champion who is seeking an Assembly seat in the San Fernando Valley. Johnson has an impressive résumé: Stanford law and business schools. Now he is executive director of a charter school with campuses in gritty parts of Los Angeles.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a Democrat, support him. Both are longtime charter school advocates. Teachers unions dislike charters, and labor is siding with his foe, Democratic insider Adrin Nazarian.

For too long, too many legislators have pledged allegiance to their ideology and refused to budge on the most pressing issues facing the state. Partisanship won’t end come June 5. But some candidates could emerge who don’t have a yellow streak but rather a streak of independence.