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Party affiliation under the top two primary system

June 23, 2009

Given Bruce Ramsey’s column today that mentions the campaign between John Burbank and myself in 2008, I can’t help but think it’s finally time for me to outline the reality of the experience from my perspective. This is actually the first time I’ve articulated the real deal of the Top Two primary system despite numerous blog posts about the issue, and some (hopefully waning) residual feelings in our district about the race.

First, neither Burbank nor I could have imagined that when we began our campaigns in early 2008 that our little race would be thrown into chaos by the United States Supreme Court. When I announced February 1, 2008 I fully expected the campaign to effectively end August 19, the date of the primary. In a legislative district that is 85% Democratic, it’s easy to understand why. Ironically, it was my predecessor, former Rep. Helen Sommers, who won in 1972 election and was the first Democrat to take the seat. The demographics of the district changed and she helped make it happen. I announced with the clear indication that I would not run if Helen did, in fact, decide to run. I felt in my heart that she had decided not to run again despite the fact that she never told anyone her true intentions until late in the session. My campaign consultant Christian Sinderman had the same instincts, and I went forward.

After two months of campaigning, my phone rang one day and political-hot shot and my friend and informal advisor Cathy Allen said, “sit down, I have big news, and you need to understand it. First of all, congratulations, I think you just won the election.” Huh, what the heck are you talking about was my obvious response. Cathy explained the court had just overturned the state’s primary system and we’d automatically revert to the “top two” primary system where the two candidates receiving the highest vote totals head into the general election regardless of party affiliation.

My goal at the time had been to: a) secure credible endorsements from environmental, business, labor, social activist, religious and political players; b) raise money; c) build support within the party organization; d) doorbell.

I was worried about keeping the race from becoming a huge battle with 7, 8 or more candidates as was the case in the 43rd Legislative District race won the year before by Jamie Pedersen. In that battle, a ‘labor’ candidate, ‘gay’ candidate, ‘woman’ candidate, ‘young’ candidate, ‘business’ candidate, etc., etc. all competed for attention from the district’s tiny primary voting block. It was a mess. Pedersen ultimately won by about 200 votes. He now enjoys near lifetime status as a legislator given the dynamics of Seattle legislative seats. In Jamie’s case, of course, it’s not necessarily a bad thing!

In my case, I was worried about a series of potential candidates–most of whom were long-time party figures. With prodigious fundraising, I was able to frighten off a lot of potential candidates who realized it would be a rough battle. Burbank announced immediately after Helen Sommers made it clear she was not going to run for re-election. It was tense from the beginning since everyone knew it was going to be an intra-party back ally brawl.

On that day when the court overturned our system, I knew the game had changed fundamentally and completely. It was no longer about August, it was a November win. August became a very important beauty contest but not the decision making victory. We also realized quickly that the November election would be a near 90% turnout versus a 35% at best turnout in the August primary. So in doorbelling, campaiging, fundraising, I set my sights for the November win. We changed tactics to ensure our resources would go all the way to November. My efforts to win the 36th District Democrats changed from front and center to one of slightly less importance–relative to the other major endorsements. Why? I was focused on the newspapers, environmental organizations and many other key people and organizations, but I realized I couldn’t spend the time necessary to win over the 36th District organization and effectively do the other tasks.

The district didn’t make an endorsement before the primary…I was able to block the endorsement from Burbank although he had a majority, and he organized new PCOs very well. Dwight Pelz, state party chairman, called me and announced that it was completely ‘unacceptable’ for the district to refuse to endorse one of us so he was making the decision–and the choice was Burbank. Thus, John Burbank became the official nominee of the Democratic Party while I was relegated to unofficial candidacy of some sort, and the complaints began on both sides. My supporters said it was unfair for Burbank to advertise himself as the official nominee since the local party had punted. His supporters said privately I should be a better sport. I asked Pelz immediately if I could continue to have access to Vote Builder and he said, “yes.” Had he refused that request, I would have had no choice but to immediately file a lawsuit against the party. It was that important. Without the party’s voters database, the race would have been all but lost. Few people realize how critical that data is to running a successful race, but it’s the engine of any victory.

Then August 19 came and went…and I won the primary campaign by just under 5%, despite trailing on election night. The language as the ‘official Democratic nominee’ in the voter’s guide didn’t do much….it might have swayed a few folks, but in the end I realized the primary voters are educated and engaged and look deeper than that, and my other endorsements such as Washington Conservation Voters, Seattle Times, etc. were ultimately stronger than party affiliation in a strongly Democratic district. Following the primary, Burbank and his supporters organized, organized, organized, and they showed up in September with an impressive 50+ new members. He won the evening’s endorsement with a strong show of support from a wide range of new people, and it felt like a sucker punch. It was an impressive accomplishment on his part. I was a bit resentful at the time that our good friend Peter House, former chairman of our district organization, was also Burbank’s consiglieri but together they worked like hell and organized the district. I was privately very impressed although I knew the ‘opportunity cost’ had been high for Burbank. I questioned my strategy the entire time but somehow felt it was still on target. The loss of the party endorsement also helped to kick my supporters, as well as campaign manager Matt Gasparich and myself, in gear even more and everyone worked even harder (hard to imagine but we did).

Burbank’s signs quickly said “Official Democratic Nominee” and the calls started. “What are you going to do?!” What could I do other than work hard? My supporters were really upset about it all.

Still, somehow, as the general election approached, I felt on the doorstep that the official Democratic nominee issue was over and that I was not losing votes because of the intra-party scuffle. Simply, the voter’s didn’t care and I could tell I was actually winning more votes by losing the endorsement than one would have thought. Moreover, the Republicans in the district loved the entire episode and felt a sense of engagement in the race for the first time. Yes, I courted Republican votes–and hard–and they flocked to me in large part because I wasn’t the party’s blessed one. It’s something that never, ever, would have happened under the old system. That was probably the best part of it all; seeing previously disengaged voters step up and care about their role in an election and in government. You can’t hide these sentiments when you knock on thousands and thousands of doors. I sensed that Burbank knew it, too, as the pitched party-centric language faded away in debates.

In the final month, we were on TV with two advertisements and, I later learned, one additional independent expenditure TV ad. I knew the battle over who was the real Democrat as blessed by the local party organization, and who was just a regular life long Democrat but a pretty good guy, was won.

The final tally was 65-35 percent and I won 229 of 241 precincts. Burbank was gracious in his concession. I’ve reached out to him as an expert in public policy and he’s reached out to me on issues that matter a great deal to him. I’m proud that our district has come back together. Yes, changed and different, with many feelings hurt at times, but the larger group has come back together and I think is a bit more reflective and insightful as a team about the role of building community through political activism. We all realize what happened and it will inform our district for years to come.

Is the top two a bad system? For the old style party infrastructure probably yes. For regular voters, certainly not. For the media? No. There is a legitimate legal and policy problem with allowing anyone of any stripe to call themselves a Democrat or a Republican, and I share that deep reservation, but our state’s history of progressive populism demands that the people have a right to their choice and open access to the ballot. Back room deals, smoke filled rooms–whether controlled by big money or big parties, goes against the passion and spirit of our state.

I have a right to call myself a Democrat and to get access to the ballot…and no group of (wonderful, gracious, honorable) 75 folks in a church basement should be able to take that away from any legitimate candidate. At the risk of illusionary grandeur, I felt in the end the top two allowed me to have the same chance that Barack Obama earned against the extraordinary party establishment and infrastructure of Hillary Clinton.

Would I have won the election without the top two primary system? Technically, yes because I pulled out a small victory in the primary. But my gut is that it would have been a very different race with different political dynamics and it would have been much more difficult for me to prevail under the old system.

So it goes.

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