Who’s afraid of a little democracy?

Nothing has excited so many Californians like the idea of a February primary. Seemingly everybody wants this to happen for some reason or another. But, in the end, the only thing that all the political wrangling on the date of the primary really has shown us is that we need real reform for the primary process ASAP.

With all the talk of the February primary, I wouldn’t blame you if you just turn the page. But wait, hear me out: I’m here to discuss local primaries.

One of the arguments for the February primary that I’ve seen is that we have just become the nation’s ATM. I would argue that this isn’t solely due to the date of our primary, but also that we have few contested elections. In many California districts, the primary is the de facto election. If you want to challenge your legislator or representative, you have to do it from within the party. Until California’s apportionment process is revamped, the primary is the only outlet for change in California.

The primary, since its inception, has been a source of conflict; it creates intraparty disagreement visible to the voters, frustration for incumbents and perhaps too much power for activists. But for whatever reasons that critics protest its use, it is hard to deny that the local primary is democracy in its rawest form. Hilda Solis was able to successfully challenge Congressman Matthew Martinez by being a better campaigner and having a more effective grassroots organization.

For a more recent example, see the once mighty Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was forced to leave his party because he was hopelessly out of touch with his base. Lieberman was able to use a quirk in state election law to run as an independent, but that loophole is not available to California elected officials.
Effective primaries should be forces of change in more than just name only; they should realign the interests of the representative with their constituents.

While some primary challenges are due to term limits, see Joe Nation, or political ambition, see Barack Obama, other challenges arise out of serious gripes with the representative in question. Illinois politics offers an interesting contrast with one primary challenge that crystallized an issue in the minds of voters, and one challenge that failed to gain any traction at all. Former Sen. Moseley-Braun defeated a Sen. Alan Dixon with a campaign that highlighted Dixon’s vote to confirm Justice Clarence Thomas. Sen. Barack Obama’s first federal race was an ill-fated and ill-conceived primary challenge to Rep. Bobby Rush.

Here in California, in 1970, Joe Cohelan was slow to criticize the pretext for and the prosecution of the Viet Nam War. Ron Dellums challenged him over this issue, and eventually become a stalwart in the Congress by more accurately representing his progressive district. It should hardly be surprising that similar pressures upon incumbents are arising out of the disaster in Iraq.

Primaries should not be feared. Rather, we should embrace the notion that our democracy is fluid. Voters should be presented with options on the ballot. If the incumbent has satisfied the voters and adequately represents the interests of the district, he or she will win. However, no legislator should assume that they are entitled to their seat simply because they have won in the past. When given a better choice, voters may opt for the candidate who believes as they do.
Some have argued that the party label should be a shield and that we should ignore malfeasance or the candidate’s position on the “issue of the cycle.”

However, it demeans our democracy to say that challengers get but one shot within the party process and then there shall be no more discussion. It cuts off the conversation before we even have a track record from which to judge. The argument goes that we should overlook issues of personal and philosophical disagreement to conserve resources. I agree that resources are critical, but are they so critical that we abandon our values? Or are values so fungible in the modern political economy that we will trade them for 30 pieces of silver?

In American democracy, we are only guaranteed a few opportunities to truly speak our mind, and for most Californians, that is exclusively through the ballot box. If we only have meaningless general elections, and our primaries are uncontested, do we really live in a democracy at all?

Brian Leubitz is publisher and editor of, an online source of news, opinion and political discussion.

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