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The San Jose Mercury News (California)
Mar 07, 2007 - 01:00 AM

by Steven Harmon, MediaNews Sacramento Bureau

Early presidential primary on governor's desk;

CRITICS SEE CHALLENGE TO TERM LIMITS AS HIDDEN MOTIVE BEHIND DATE CHANGE
The bill to give California voters a louder voice in the 2008 presidential campaign by moving up the state's presidential primary from June to Feb. 5 received its final legislative approval Tuesday and now only awaits what should be a swift signature by the governor.

The historic vote will elevate California as a key player in choosing the next presidential nominees, said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nez, D-Los Angeles. The bill, SB 113, which already cleared the Senate, was approved on a party-line vote, 46-28, with Republicans objecting to the estimated $60 million to $90 million price tag of a third election and Democrats' refusal to add language guaranteeing that counties would be reimbursed for the cost.

"Our voice will travel across the nation,'' Nez said, "because we are putting California squarely in the front, center stage of the national political debate.''

The Feb. 5 primary could turn into a de facto national primary. As many as 19 states have moved to that date or are considering it, including New York, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois. They would follow New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada in the nation's first primaries and caucuses, creating what will probably be an unprecedented flow of campaign cash -- with unpredictable effects on how campaigns are waged.

The potential for an early California vote already has paid dividends for the state. Major candidates from both parties -- including Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, and Republicans John McCain and Rudy Giuliani -- have made numerous appearances in the state, and not just to raise cash.

Political cynicism

But the push for an earlier presidential primary also has been met with some political cynicism. Legislative leaders have sought to attach the primary to other reforms, including a change in term limits, redistricting and possibly campaign-finance rules.

Critics contend the real reason for an early primary is to also place the term-limits measures on the Feb. 5 ballot, which could extend the power of Nez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland.

"They're not doing this to get voters more information; this is not about civic engagement at all,'' said David McCuan, a political-science professor at Sonoma State University. "It's clear the motivations are crass, political and selfish.''

Legislators could have avoided the perception of self-interest if they'd also moved the legislative primaries from June to February, critics said. That would have prohibited current lawmakers from running again. Instead, the legislative primaries will remain in June -- adding to the cost. In the three previous presidential elections -- 1996, 2000 and 2004 -- the legislative and presidential primaries were all held simultaneously in March.

"This is so blatantly geared toward retaining power and influence that the public is bound to be cynical,'' said Carmen Balber, a consumer advocate for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "They could just as easily do a term-limits extension that didn't grandfather all the leaders. Instead, they're doing it for their own political interest.''

Nez denied any self-interest.

"This is an issue that stands on its own. It doesn't need to be accompanied by anything else,'' Nez said at a news conference before the vote. "I believe that Californians will understand at the end of the day when they go to the ballot and they vote that this is about them.''

Competing reforms

With Nez's backing, two of the state's most powerful political interest groups -- CalChamber and the California Teachers Association -- filed a term-limits initiative last month with the Attorney General's Office. If voters approve the term-limits change -- allowing legislators to serve 12 years in a single house, rather than six in the Assembly and eight in the Senate -- current legislators could run in the June statewide primary.

Term-limits reform advocates say what's getting lost is the valid argument for loosening term limits.

"This should be a debate about what we should do to strengthen the expertise of the Legislature while at the same time getting the benefits of turnover,'' said Bruce Cain of the University of California Center in Washington, D.C., and a participant in a state legislators' group that concluded term limits need to be amended. "Instead, we'll be treated to the spectacle of people crying it's not fair Don Perata gets another term.''

Even their attempt at more popular reform, such as redistricting, has been bogged down by the perception of self-interest, critics say. Historically reluctant to give up their power to draw political district boundaries, Democrats have said they will back reform -- but only if it doesn't include congressional boundaries.

"It sounds self-serving, but if that's what it takes to get redistricting reform, which would be a huge improvement to California politics, I'm inclined to say it's worth it,'' said Melissa Michelson, political-science professor at Cal State-East Bay. "Even if it only hits the state Legislature, it's a big step forward. Fixing half of it is better than nothing.''

Skeptical that the Democratic-controlled Legislature will produce redistricting reform, political reform groups last week filed their own initiative, which included congressional boundaries.

"The Legislature is increasingly perceived as a self-serving institution,'' said Larry Gerston, political-science professor at San Jose State University. "Does this do damage? I'm not sure, because most people hold the Legislature in such low esteem, this is another day at the office.''
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Contact Steven Harmon at sharmon@cctimes.com or (916) 441-2101.




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