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Monday, September 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Don't pinch me; I have a dream we can improve our political process

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Between the onslaught of shameless special-interest attack ads and the temporary victory of the state parties to restrict Washington voters to one-party primary ballots, I've been feeling more than the usual sense of discouragement about our political process.

So I've been indulging in daydreaming about a new populist renaissance, fueled by voters taking back their political system. Imagine moderates and independents cutting out of the political process those party bosses and special-interest groups who invade our living rooms and mailboxes with the lies of extremes.

Am I naive? Maybe not. You see, this is not a solitary reverie, but one shared up and down the West Coast from California to Alaska — by some people more politically savvy than I am.

Exhibits A and B hail from California: Leon Panetta, a Democrat, was President Clinton's chief of staff; and Richard Riordan, a Republican, was mayor of Los Angeles and currently is education secretary under the state's Republican governor.

The Democrat and the Republican might be voting for different presidential candidates, but they are of one mind when it comes to how to wrest California government from the political extremes and return it to the people.

They are campaign co-chairmen for Proposition 62, a Nov. 2 ballot measure that would change California's partisan primary to one that permits all voters to consider all candidates. The top two vote-getters would advance to the general election, regardless of party.

That should sound familiar, because it is very similar to Washington's Initiative 872, which I submit as Exhibit C. Also on the Nov. 2 ballot, the measure is sponsored by the Washington Grange, the grass-roots organization that first proposed Washington's popular but unconstitutional blanket primary.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled California's blanket primary unconstitutional. The parties argued successfully it violated their rights because, by letting all voters vote on all candidates, it permitted nonparty members to pick who represented the respective parties in the general election. Washington's state parties smelled blood in the water, sued and also prevailed in the courts. Tuesday, for the first time in 70 years, Washington voters had to confine their primary choices to candidates of only one party. I didn't like it, and neither did about 79 percent of voters, according to one election-day survey.

Backers of the Washington and California ballot measures say the top-two model is constitutional because it takes party out of the equation completely.

That's fine with Riordan and Panetta, who point to their parties' bosses divvying up California so drastically most districts are either predominantly Republican or Democrat. In such signed-sealed-and-delivered districts, independents and those in the minority party have no say in who represents them.

"It's almost impossible for moderates to get their candidates elected," Riordan said.

The effect is nonrepresentative government, Panetta says: "The partisan primary has produced a legislature that is much more partisan and extreme in terms of policy and does not reach out to the broad center of voters."

Moving north, we come to Exhibit D. Former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling is working to put a "top two" primary on that state's ballot.

To win the primary, Keisling notes, "You have Republicans who have to sing in the Hallelujah chorus of the pro-life, pro-gun, anti-gay, anti-government interests. And you have the Democrats who have to sing in the Hallelujah chorus of the AFL-CIO and whatever the public employees unions want.

" ... The current system makes cowards of so many people."

Exhibit E resides in Alaska, where the blanket primary also was a casualty of the federal courts. State Sen. Kim Elton of Juneau is sponsoring legislation establishing a "top two" primary but allowing parties to opt out. Party nominees selected in caucuses or party-financed primaries would appear on the ballot alongside the state's sanctioned primary winners. Elton suspects the parties would opt in, otherwise their candidates, by comparison, would be exposed for what they are — extreme.

Once again, with feeling: "Partisanship is trumping good public policy," Elton insists.

The commonality is not lost on my fellow yearners for something better. Imagine moderates in the West, which was built on independent-minded sensibilities, seizing their state political systems and igniting a new movement to the political center that spreads across the nation.

Panetta indulges in the bigger-scale dream, too. "We have a country that is too divided between the red and the blue. We need to come back to the center."

Pinch me. Is that so far-fetched?

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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