Monday, April 22, 2013

Ellis, out on an island


By Bill Kraus

Not so very long ago Senator Mike Ellis developed and recommended a campaign financing plan that would have contributed a significant amount of public money to anyone who agreed to spending limits. The plan also was structured to protect those who took the public money and agreed to the spending limits from spending by unregulated third parties and organizations.

The comfortable incumbents who would have had to agree to this plan said in effect if not in fact “why would I vote for something that gives public money to people who want to run against me, and that takes away the advantage I have in raising campaign money due to my incumbency?”

The response should have been, “Because this is your last, best chance to be delivered from dialing for dollars and for avoiding hijacked campaigns and being thought beholden to interests rather than to the people who vote for you.”

The response instead was, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

The Ellis proposal was not enacted.

Since then the Supreme Court in its insular wisdom has made what Ellis regarded as a bad situation infinitely worse, and any and all hopes of putting a lid on campaign spending by candidates and the now-ubiquitous third parties who clutter campaigns with their money and messages became infinitely dimmer.

Spending is now out of sight with no serious prospect of any kind of limitations or reforms. Congress gets an approval rating of 10 percent from voters who assume and accept that most members are bought and paid for. Jesse Unruh’s famous dictum, “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, take their money, and vote against them, you don’t belong in this business,” is no longer in effect.

A different set of comfortable incumbents is now being given yet another “right thing” to do by enacting a redistricting system that takes these same incumbents who want to use this process to make most legislative elections non-competitive and guarantee the majority party of the moment a 10-year advantage at least out of the mapmaking business.

This idea seems to be about as welcome as Ellis’s was back in the last millennium. The comfortable incumbents who would have to agree to this idea are repeating what they said about the Ellis idea: “Why would I vote for something that gives a challenger a better chance of defeating me?”

The response this time goes beyond, “because it’s the right thing to do,” to, “because a district that is safe from a challenge by a candidate from the other party is not as safe as you think it is.”

Senator Dale Schultz has the unwelcome chance to be the poster boy for the dark side of biased redistricting.

The 90 percent of the legislators on the right and the left are not going to be seriously challenged by candidates in the November general elections. The trouble will come from the farther right and the farther left, and it will come in the August primary elections.

What a shift of the important election in the incumbent-safe districts does is makes the primary election really primary in every sense of that word. These are low-turnout elections and those who vote in primaries are disproportionately the yellow dog super partisans.

The obvious trouble with this scenario is that the citizens who are the decisive voters in statewide elections are more likely to be citizens firsts, partisans second. This means that the power under the dome is bifurcated as deadlock between the governor, who is elected statewide in Novembers, and the Legislature, which is elected in August, play to their quite different constituencies.

Since gerrymandering makes a huge majority of legislative seats safe for one party or the other and the primaries are where legislators are picked, the unavoidable outcome is a government by a minority and a greatly diminished executive office at all levels where this situation exists. The law of unintended consequences raises its ugly head again as the current districting system turns into a design for deadlock.

The incumbents who blew the chance to contain the money are gone. Let’s hope the incumbents who will decide who will have a chance to give voters a better chance to pick their representatives rather than vice versa don’t blow their chance to do the right thing this year.

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