Open Primary Season in the East Bay
The new system may hurt Skinner, Swanson, and Kinney but Welch is hopeful in the state senate district race.
Photo courtesy of Sheoy Sindel
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While hobnobbing for her June primary campaign during the California Democratic State Convention in San Jose, former Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner revealed a more soulful side to her public persona: She can sing. Skinner cut an album of folk songs in the 1980s. Asked to sing a few bars, she complied, belting out a few lines of an original song.
Of course, if you were the beneficiary of almost $1.1 million in campaign contributions to spend in the East Bay’s 9th state Senate District race, you might sing, too. Skinner’s war chest greatly outstrips those of her opponents, former Democratic Assemblyman Sandre Swanson; first-time Democratic candidate Katherine Welch of Piedmont; and San Pablo Mayor Rich Kinney (also a singer!), the only Republican.
The eventual pitch and tone of this high-profile campaign remains to be seen. The race will likely be hard-fought and grueling from here to November. When California voters approved a radical change to the way statewide officials were elected, the reform, known as the open primary, predicted the end of partisan gridlock in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. By giving moderate candidates from either side of the aisle a second shot at incumbents in November, this system has succeeded in many cases in moving the Legislature and congressional candidates a tad toward the center of the political spectrum.
But while the open primary has begun to transform politics on the geographical fringes of the Greater East Bay, it hasn’t yet changed much in Oakland, Berkeley, or Richmond, where registered Republicans are in short supply. Open primary races in Oakland often amount to contested races featuring progressives offering nary a difference in their policies and beliefs.
Swanson hopes to dramatize the differences between himself and Skinner. In 2009, when both were in the state Assembly and the state was drowning in a $41 billion budget deficit, Swanson voted against a hard-fought bipartisan compromise hammered out by the Democratic leadership. He paid dearly for his insubordination, losing his committee chairmanship. At the time, Swanson said he could not vote for a budget plan that cut services for the children and poor. Part of the plan negotiated with Republicans also led to a ballot initiative in 2010 that paved the way for the open primary, which Swanson also opposed.
“It wasn’t democratic,” Swanson said. “It eliminated the Green Party and other parties; and diluted most loyal Democrats like minorities.”
The problem, as Swanson sees it, is that the open primary often pits two strong Democrats against each other in the general election. Over time, the intraparty battles could have a negative effect on the party, he said.
The strategy behind Swanson’s budget vote is to highlight what he hopes voters will see as a highly principled progressive willing to go against the grain in Sacramento. Skinner’s rebuttal to this approach has been to describe herself as an “operational progressive,” someone who stands for liberal principles but is willing to make certain compromises to further such policies.
Both candidates believe their records will win the day. And both preferred the former primary format, which allowed the top vote-getter in each party to face off in November. That, at least, is one area in which the perceived frontrunners agree with their GOP primary opponent.
“The top two primary just destroyed me,” said Kinney, who was recently appointed mayor of San Pablo. “Under the old way, I could have been in the top two. It’s kind of a joke.”
Because the 9th state Senate District is composed of just 8 percent registered Republican voters, a Dem-on-Dem matchup in November is considered a certainty. “They have such a strong dominance on the political scenery that Republicans don’t have a chance,” Kinney griped.
Some members of the Alameda County Republican Party relish seeing Democrats poke each other in the eyes during an extended election cycle. “I’d rather win the seat,” Kinney said.
Kinney thinks the open primary’s influence in favor of more moderate candidates is slowly bearing fruit in the East Bay, citing the recent successes of state Sen. Steve Glazer and Catharine Baker in the Assembly as prime examples. “I think Glazer and Baker have been hitting on something real,” Kinney said. “I’ve had Democrats say they would vote for moderates, and I’m thinking in my head, ‘Bing! Bing! Bing! That’s me, folks!’”
Another unintended consequence of the open primary is the profligacy of independent expenditure committees. These groups, known as IEs, are not allowed to coordinate with the candidate’s campaign, and their outlays usually entail radio, television, and direct-mail advertising for and against a candidate. But the nature of these campaigns is most typically negative.
In every contested open primary race in the East Bay since 2012, the amount of unregulated special interest money has been staggering. Skinner believes the rise of IEs within open primaries began as the number of competitive Republican districts across the state shrank and the special interests recalculated their strategies.
“Even before the top two, we started to see a growth of IEs,” Skinner said. “I think one of the things that has driven the growth of IEs beyond the top two is the fact that if you look at registration in California, the Republicans are a bad brand—the numbers are very tiny. If you’re a certain type of interest who would have been normally gravitating toward them or want to increase their numbers in office, where’s the Republicans you can invest in?”