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
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
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
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
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.
George W. has already ripped through about $45 million, and the race is just
getting interesting. Can he hold out through the summer?
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Frum blames proponents of busing for public cynicism toward government.
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.