TIME 2014 Election

California’s New Jungle Primary System

Mike Honda
Liberal lion Mike Honda in D.C., where he has support from the Democratic establishment. He has served seven terms in Congress but faces challenges from within his own party Jose Luis Magana—AP

All bets are off in California's congressional races as multiple candidates from the same party face off

“I’m Guessing,” says Dan Schnur, who is running for California secretary of state, “that not many of you lie awake at night wondering what the next California secretary of state will do.” There is laughter from the crowd of maybe 30 voters. And you, too, dear readers–especially those of you who don’t even live in California–may be wondering why a candidate for a decidedly obscure political office is worthy of your attention.

Well, part of it is that Dan Schnur is an interesting guy, a longtime consultant to moderate Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger and John McCain. But he isn’t a Republican anymore. He’s running as an Independent. “I’m in favor of marriage equality and lower taxes,” he begins. “I’m tough on crime and pro-choice. I’m for immigration reform and for using test scores as a valuable measure of students’ progress. Yes, the reason that I’m running as an Independent is that neither party will have me.”

But that’s not exactly accurate. He’s running as an Independent because there were two political reforms enacted during Schwarzenegger’s time as governor of California. They were below the radar but startling, the sort of reforms that are near impossible because incumbent politicians usually block them–but they were passed by public referendum and initiative in 2010, and Schnur was one of those at the heart of the campaign to get them enacted.

The reforms are ingeniously simple. There is no more gerrymandering in California, no more congressional or state legislative districts tailored to the needs of the incumbents or the majority political party. District lines are now drawn by an independent commission to reflect actual community borders. (The commissioners are forbidden by law from knowing where the incumbents live.) Second, primaries are now multipartisan: the top two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, face off against each other in the general election. Schnur co-chaired the Voices of Reform project on redistricting. “I wasn’t too involved in the top-two primary reform,” he says. “I didn’t think it would make much difference … but I’ve learned: this could be enormous.” Schnur and his colleagues may have actually created an electoral system that favors centrists rather than politicians who play to their party’s base. On June 3, California will go to the polls in what politicos have taken to calling the Jungle Primary.

California’s Fourth Congressional District is a perfect primer for the curiosities of the Jungle. Tom McClintock, 57, is the three-term incumbent and has long prided himself on his “constitutionalist” orneriness. He is, in other words, a Tea Party Republican. His district, in the Central Valley and foothills, is very conservative but perhaps not as extreme as McClintock is. He is, for example, in favor of amnesty for Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, because Snowden helped expose the criminal proclivities of the federal government and “I’d rather have him home talking to us than over there talking to the Russians.”

At a well-attended Saturday-afternoon meeting in the town of Mariposa, near the entrance to Yosemite National Park, McClintock endorsed a candidate for county supervisor and then addressed the crowd, many of whom wore cowboy hats and sported some elaborate facial hair. They were all het up over the federal government and the “left-wing environmentalists,” as McClintock described them, calling the federal tune in Yosemite. Some of their complaints sounded reasonable: a local toad was about to be labeled “threatened,” which would further limit the local water supply (there’s been a terrible drought in California)–but the toads were dying out, according to the locals, because the feds had stocked the lakes with trout, which ate the tadpoles. The feds were also proposing to close down stables and rafting businesses along the Yosemite waterways.

McClintock is a smart politician who knows the issues, knows what his constituents care about and can make it seem as if he’s as angry as they are. He takes lonely–his opponents say obstructionist–stands against the various agencies of the Department of the Interior. He “speaks truth to power,” as he told the folks in Mariposa. In the past, he didn’t have many electoral cares; the Democrats have never had much of a chance in either the old or new Fourth District. But now McClintock has to worry about Art Moore, who is also a Republican.

Moore, 36, is a razor-sharp recent combat veteran, an Army major returned to his hometown of Roseville, the most populous community in the Fourth District. He is a graduate of West Point who served tours in both Iraq and Kuwait. He is also, however, a stone-cold neophyte who hasn’t really been to political boot camp yet. He is, he says, “a conservative,” and he checks the appropriate boxes on most conservative issues, like Obamacare–but he also is “a bit more libertarian” than McClintock on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. Most important, though, is his style: he’s the opposite of McClintock’s lone gunslinger. “You’ve got to sit down and negotiate with those you don’t agree with,” he says. “[McClintock] has a perfect conservative voting record, but what has he got done? He voted to shut down the federal government–to close Yosemite–which really hurt this district. I’m in favor of building coalitions and seeing if we can make some progress on the issues.”

Moore admits that he would not have run under the old system. McClintock has the party base locked up and the power of incumbency. But if Moore can make it into the general election against McClintock, he may be able to access independent and moderate Democratic voters as well as his brand of conservative Republicans. “In the Jungle Primary, everybody has to run to the center,” says Fred Keeley, a former state rep from Santa Cruz who co-chaired the Voices of Reform project with Schnur, “because that’s where the votes are.”

McClintock claims not to be worried about Moore. He tells me that his “most substantial opponent” in the Fourth District is an Independent named Jeffrey Gerlach. It’s a lovely tactic to pretend that Moore doesn’t matter and a sign that uniprimary politics can get pretty interesting: a Republican opponent like Moore, who might appeal to moderates in November, when more people are paying attention, is McClintock’s worst nightmare in the Jungle.

Indeed, across the state in Silicon Valley, there has been an outbreak of electoral weirdness in the 17th Congressional District–which, in some ways, is a mirror image of the race in the Fourth: Mike Honda, a traditional labor liberal, is opposed by a more moderate Democratic newcomer named Ro Khanna. Khanna, 37, is an Indian American, an intellectual-property lawyer who worked in Barack Obama’s Commerce Department and has close ties to the President. He has also reportedly raised $3.7 million–far more than Honda–from Silicon Valley tech titans, who are just beginning to flex their political muscles (much as Hollywood did during the Vietnam War). Khanna is an impressive candidate, fluent on every issue and, in some cases, downright courageous: he is willing to challenge the public-employee unions–all of which support Honda–on issues like accountability and pension reform. Most of the major newspapers in the district have endorsed Khanna.

But the 17th District also has a semiplausible third candidate–a Republican named Dr. Vanila Singh, 43, a young and attractive professor of anesthesiology at Stanford University Medical School. Singh is a neophyte and can seem foggy on the issues, but she has positioned herself cleverly–she’s another social liberal, and she’s willing to negotiate with the Democrats about the Affordable Care Act. In fact, since about 25% of the district votes Republican, she might pose a credible primary threat to Khanna, the Democratic moderate. And so, after she declared her candidacy, there was a sudden flowering of old-style urban ward politics in and around San Jose. Suddenly, Singh had two Republican challengers–one named, confusingly enough, Vanish Singh Rathore (who was eliminated from the ballot because the signatures on his petitions were not remotely plausible); the other, Joel Vanlandingham, offered petitions that included signatures from Khanna supporters.

Khanna denies any hand in this. “I would have to be pretty stupid to get involved in that sort of thing,” he says. “I mean, Vanlandingham was really tough on me in the League of Women Voters debate.”

There are some who say that the Jungle will cause of lot of rumbling but no real results. “The rubber meets the road when the moderates go to Congress,” says Samuel Popkin of the University of California at San Diego. “The evidence suggests they stick with the party line.” The evidence is skimpy, though–just the 2012 election, when the Jungle was brand-new and most politicians weren’t completely aware of its possibilities yet. Some felt the traditional pull of partisan loyalty and chose not to challenge their party’s stalwarts.

Khanna was one such in 2012, when he chose not to challenge the venerable Representative Pete Stark, a devoted liberal and the only admitted atheist in the House. Another young Democrat, Eric Swalwell, made that race and beat Stark, which sent a signal throughout the state that the Jungle was open for business: you could challenge incumbents of your own party and maybe even win.

Honda seems a bit mystified by all that has happened. His is a classic American story. He spent part of his youth imprisoned in a Japanese-American internment camp in Colorado during World War II. He was inspired, not embittered, by the experience. He became a teacher and then a school principal, then commenced a public life that culminated in seven terms in Congress. His campaign office is in a Service Employees International Union hall. He greets me wearing jeans and cowboy boots and a red, white and blue Democratic donkey tie.

He sees his career as many incumbents do: a list of local projects funded, of ideological battles fought–in his case, the relentless pursuit of social justice and civil rights. He remembers helping get a nanotechnology bill passed in 2003 at the behest of Silicon Valley, but now the techno-wizards have abandoned him in favor of Khanna. “I’m an orchardist,” he says. “That nanotechnology bill planted the seeds for the trees that are bearing the fruit in Silicon Valley now. But I guess no one remembers those who plant the trees.”

It is hard not to have sympathy for Honda, but the political orchard he and his generation planted was poisoned over time by partisanship and paralysis, and now it has been replaced by a jungle. We’ll see what sorts of glorious fruits and subtle poisons the Jungle brings forth.

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