Legislators cancel '04 primary
Seattle Times chief political reporter
OLYMPIA — The Legislature yesterday voted to cancel Washington's 2004 presidential primary, saying it would be expensive and largely meaningless.
The result was expected. But it came only after a Senate session that sputtered through the afternoon as Republicans maneuvered to prevent a vote. The debate swayed far from the facts and was unusually rife with runaway rhetoric — including comparisons to totalitarian regimes and worry that ending the primary could lead to the loss of hundreds of millions of federal dollars.
The House voted 84-7 and the Senate 25-22 to eliminate the primary that had been scheduled for March 2 and was estimated to cost $6 million.
"It's senseless to waste taxpayer money on an election that serves no practical purpose," Gov. Gary Locke said.
The primary lost most of its purpose when the national Democratic Party said it would not apportion any delegates based on the results of the primary. Instead, the party said it would use only the results of the party caucuses, a multistep process that begins with precinct-level meetings Feb. 7.
Republicans said they would appoint one-third of their delegates based on the primary results. But with President Bush facing no serious party opposition, that would likely have no impact on the outcome of the GOP nomination.
The primary has struggled for meaning throughout its troubled life.
It was created in 1989 when lawmakers approved an initiative to the Legislature that was sponsored by political activists, including former chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties.
It was meant as a reform to the caucus system, which critics said was too easily manipulated and involved too few people.
Democrats never counted the results of the primary, though, and Republicans counted fewer each primary. And if a voter chose the "unaffiliated" ballot rather than a party ballot, no one counted it.
"This is not a right to vote. It is a waste of time," said Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam. "It's a ruse on the public."
There was very little debate in the House.
Not much had been expected in the Senate, either. Sen. James West, R-Spokane, said that when Locke called him about canceling the primary, he told the governor, "I don't think anybody cares."
But opposition solidified among the Republicans, who hold a majority in the Senate — or at least they usually do. With two members absent when the vote came, there were 24 Democrats and 23 Republicans.
Sen. Shirley Winsley, R-Fircrest, was the lone Republican who voted in favor of canceling the primary.
Strayed from topic
Senators strayed far afield in arguing for and against the primary.
Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, the sponsor of the bill passed yesterday, argued that after Democrats said primary results wouldn't count toward delegates, presidential candidate Howard Dean canceled scheduled campaign visits to the state.
But Dean's state coordinator, Betty Means, said nothing has been canceled, but that having no primary would change the campaign's post-caucus strategy.
Kastama said the information had come from his aide but appeared to have been a misunderstanding.
Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said her constituents were angry that they had to choose either a Democratic or Republican ballot and didn't like being identified by party.
But there always was the unaffiliated choice, which would have kept them off any party list.
Sen. Joyce Mulliken, R-Moses Lake, said people who vote in the primary have a chance to become delegates to party conventions.
That's not true. The Republican Party would have appointed some delegates by results of the primary, but they would have had to be elected at a caucus or party convention.
Mulliken also told the Senate that while its debate was going on, Locke interrupted the broadcast on TVW, which airs all legislative action, for a news conference to praise the House for voting to cancel the primary. That, she said, robbed the Senate Republicans of making their case directly to voters watching at home.
"So that's political," she railed.
But it didn't happen. Locke's news conference was taped by TVW to be aired later, though it could be seen on a closed-circuit channel in legislative offices, said TVW President Cindy Zehnder.
Mulliken later apologized on the Senate floor.
Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, pumped up the number of people who voted in the 2000 primary from 1.3 million to 1.5 million.
Sen. Dave Schmidt, R-Bothell, bumped the figure to 1.6 million, and said 52 percent of voters turned out for the primary that year.
It was 43 percent. After the vote, Schmidt said he had been told it was 52 percent, though a news release put out by his office later had the correct figure.
Link to federal dollars
Schmidt advanced the connection between the primary and federal dollars to the state. He said many candidates for president are members of Congress.
A primary that attracts candidates would therefore mean that more members of Congress would visit the state and learn about local issues.
Then, back in Congress — apparently after losing their presidential bids — those members would be more likely to vote for federal aid and projects for Washington, where they had visited. And without the visits, the votes could go against the state and lead to Washington "losing hundreds of millions of dollars."
Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, had a smaller-scale economic development argument: He said a radio station in his district would lose an expected $25,000 that presidential candidates would have spent for commercials.
That, he said, was in addition to "the printers of the state and the money they'll be losing. Our state needs business now."
For those not motivated by the economic benefits, West raised foreboding prospects.
West said canceling the primary made him think about the 1935 book "It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis.
According to the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, the book is about a presidential candidate who, when he wins, "forcibly gains control of Congress and the Supreme Court, and, with the aid of his personal paramilitary storm troopers, turns the United States into a totalitarian state."
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
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