[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
February 10 - 17, 2000


California dreamin'

The California primary could reward Election Day losers. Plus, George W.'s cash-flow problem, Big Dig money woes, and David Frum's groovy new book.

by Seth Gitell

In California's primary this year, all votes will be equal, but some will be more equal than others. Because of a change in the Golden State's primary system -- a change that will be tested for the first time in a presidential election this year -- the winner of the popular vote could actually lose the election.

This weird possibility has its roots in a state ballot initiative that passed in 1996 with 60 percent of the vote. Proposition 198 was supposed to create an open primary, in which all voters would choose from the same ballot and any voter could select a candidate from any party. That way, for example, a Republican living in Los Angeles could vote for a GOP presidential candidate but still back a Democrat for the city council.

Party bosses hated the measure because it would have allowed people voting outside their parties, along with independents, to sway an election. That was what happened in New Hampshire, where independents came out in full force for John McCain. Party leaders tried to get the ballot initiative overturned in court, but they failed. So legislative leaders of both parties teamed up with Democratic governor Gray Davis and amended it with legislation.

Now the same ballot will be distributed to all voters, and all results will be reported -- but only votes cast by party members will count when it comes to delegates. It's entirely possible that McCain will win the popular vote -- thanks to support from independents and wayward Democrats -- while George W. Bush, with a majority of votes from registered Republicans, comes away with the 162 delegates at stake in the election.

Although very few states allow cross-party voting in primaries, California's new restrictions are extremely unusual. In Massachusetts, for instance, voters are given a ballot reflecting their party affiliation; independents get their choice of ballots at the polls. If you are an independent, voting in a party's primary automatically enrolls you in that party, and you must re-register to preserve your independent status for the next election. But independents' votes do count toward the final result.

California writer and political activist Arianna Huffington, who's just written a book called How To Overthrow the Government (Regan Books), says the byzantine machinations of the party leaders are alienating the public.

"Once again the two-party monopoly is stepping in to squash anything that threatens their hegemony," says Huffington, who is backing McCain. She says a lot of her politically active friends -- including many liberals drawn by McCain's insurgent candidacy -- are taking the time to register as Republicans so their votes will really matter. But, she points out, "My circle isn't a very representative sample."

Gregory Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based fellow at the New America Foundation, says voters may find out about the changes too late to make their ballots count. "No one's even talking about the primary. I have not seen a presidential ad here yet," Rodriguez says. Meanwhile, the last day to change party affiliations in California was Monday. (In Massachusetts, voters had until Wednesday to register or to change their party affiliation.)

Complicating matters is that the California primary, which has typically been held in June, will this year take place on Super Tuesday, March 7. So the delegate-rich state will also play an important role in the selection of each party's nominee.

Perhaps the best thing that could happen here would be the worst-case scenario: the popular winner losing the election. Surely there could be no clearer indication of how deaf the national parties are to the desires of growing numbers of voters. The traditional party labels mean little or nothing to most of the voting public. True, that's partly because many voters don't know enough about the issues to identify with any political structure. But it's mostly because all Americans have been drifting away from institutions in the past couple of decades: political parties are going the way of organized religion and local civic organizations. It's deeply cynical for party leaders in California to exploit that disaffection.

If the two-party system succeeds in putting a big state like California in lockdown, people will get angry. That could be the big news in this spring's election cycle.

SPENDTHRIFT: George W. has already ripped through about $45 million, and the race is just getting interesting. Can he hold out through the summer?

So much for George W. Bush's financial advantage. By the end of December 1999, Bush had spent $37 million of his $68 million -- and many observers estimate that he spent another $10 million in January.

What really hurts Bush is that since his disastrous performance in New Hampshire, the money has stopped rolling in. Even worse, it is going to McCain. In the 48 hours following McCain's New Hampshire victory, the senator took in $1 million over the Internet. Now, the Washington Post is reporting that the Pioneers, the people who did so much to raise money for Bush, are demanding that the campaign justify how it spent nearly $50 million to come up with only 31 delegates.

"Bush no longer looks inevitable. He no longer has the money," says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. More disturbing to Bush's early backers, though, is his tack to the right at the expense of his much-vaunted compassionate conservatism. "He's no longer a moderate," Marsh says, adding: "It's like pouring money down the drain."

No matter who wins the nomination, the Republican nominee will still get $68 million from the federal government to run in the general election. But it's less clear what will happen to another significant source of funds. In the final months before primary season, the Bush campaign -- content with its massive war chest -- stopped raising money for Bush's presidential effort and started raising "soft money" to put in Republican Party coffers. Because the campaign anticipated that Bush would be the nominee, it wanted to make sure the party would have plenty of soft money to run television ads blasting the Democrats.

Now, if McCain wins the nomination, he could inherit the soft money that Bush intended for himself! Even more intriguing, though, is that he might not get the additional support. Given McCain's stance on soft money, he might reject it, knowing the Democrats would otherwise whack him for hypocrisy. And the Republican party elders so revile McCain that they might not let him have the money at all.

MONEY-HUNGRY: Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman James Kerasiotes's insatiable appetite for revenue may threaten plans for green space at the site of the depressed Central Artery.

In all the fuss over the Big Dig's increased costs, no one seems willing to confront the possibility that when it comes time to design the supposed jewel of the Central Artery Project -- the 27 acres of open space that will become available in the middle of the city -- there won't be any money left. Worse, in fact, there might not be any open land left.

The original plans for the space above the depressed highway were outlined in an environmental certificate that state regulators signed off on when they approved the project in 1991: "The sudden appearance of 27 acres of open space in one of the country's oldest and most historically significant cities is an urban planner's and an urban dweller's dream. . . . [T]he 75-percent open-space component of this project is an essential mitigation measure and . . . must be considered as an established part of the Central Artery project."

But consider what happens when you build a house. At the start of the project, there are grandiose plans about detailed molding and elaborate architectural flourishes. After the house is constructed, however, there's no money left for kitchen cabinets.

Engineering sources familiar with the Big Dig say the $1.4 billion deficit announced two weeks ago is just the tip of the iceberg: the costs are likely to go much higher. That's because the project is so technically complex, they say. Work is being done underneath the city without upsetting existing buildings. Tunnels are being completed miles away from their planned sites: they will be transported underground. It's common knowledge among Big Dig workers that the project is over budget, one source says; the remarkable thing is not that everything costs so much, but that it is so close to being on time.

Given these costs, it's not unreasonable to ask whether officials will try to amend the certificate so that money can be raised by selling land rights to developers. After all, Massachusetts Turnpike chairman James Kerasiotes, who oversees the Big Dig, has shown an insatiable thirst for revenue. He's already considered hawking air rights along the Turnpike, pondered putting fiber-optic cables along the highway, and tried to push construction of a 49-story tower over the Pike in the Back Bay.

Patrice Todisco, the executive director of the Boston Greenspace Alliance, says she isn't so worried about the possibility of the state auctioning off the land, though she is concerned about how much money will be left to design the space. She and other advocates note that the state would have to go through an additional regulatory process to change the open-space/building formula. That would be a costly setback for an already strapped public-works project.

But that's not to say it couldn't happen. Plus, all kinds of possible revenue-producing schemes could ruin the open space without violating the letter of the law. For example, the state could sell air rights that would allow giant skyscrapers to cast the space in shadow.

Needless to say, the issue isn't dead. State officials have agreed to discuss Big Dig finances at a joint meeting next month of the Environmental Oversight Committee and Move Massachusetts. Stay tuned.

HEAVY, MAN: Frum blames proponents of busing for public cynicism toward government.

If you've browsed the bookstores lately, you may have noticed David Frum's new history of the 1970s, How We Got Here: The 70's -- The Decade That Brought You Modern Life -- For Better or Worse (Basic). It's hard to miss: the jacket is a psychedelic orange, and the title is presented in a funky 1970s font, with catch phrases of the era -- malaise, Chariots of the Gods, Baader-Meinhoff, stagflation, "Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi?" -- printed in tiny type in the background.

But that's not the only reason to take a look: Boston's busing trauma occupies center stage in Frum's account. Frum, a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard, compares pro-busing politicians who put their children in private schools to American leaders who sent soldiers to die in Vietnam while their own sons remained safe at home. "Senator Edward Kennedy sent his sons to St. Alban's," he writes. "George McGovern, although a District of Columbia resident, paid $1450 a year in tuition to enroll his daughter in the Bethesda public schools -- a school system then three percent black."

It was just such experiences, Frum contends, that helped solidify the public's cynicism toward government.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.