Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Top-two primary gives business interests an opening

Professional politicians clearly dislike California’s still-new “top-two” primary election system, which was forced on them by voters.

Placing all candidates on the same primary ballot, with the two top finishers facing each other in a November runoff, makes outcomes less predictable by broadening the universe of voters who can cast ballots.

If there’s anything political pros dislike, it’s uncertainty. Amateur ideologues who dominated closed primaries, but now wield less influence, also aren’t happy.

The top-two system was sold to voters as a reform to reduce ideological polarization in a dysfunctional Legislature by allowing pragmatists and centrists – with appeal to a more homogenous voter pool – to win seats.

California’s business community, which supported the top-two system, wanted to sand off the Legislature’s ideological corners – especially those of the Capitol’s dominant Democrats.

Business interests wage perennial political war with liberal groups – unions, environmentalists, consumer advocates and personal injury lawyers – over the latter’s legislative agenda. Electing more centrist Democrats, executives believed, would make it easier for their lobbyists to win bill battles.

The 2012 elections were the top-two system’s first test and outcomes appeared, in the main, to meet business expectations.

Corporate campaign organizations played heavily in that year’s elections, and even though the ranks of Democrats swelled to supermajority proportions, enough “mods” won that business lobbyists killed or neutered almost all the major bills they targeted in 2013 – and appear to be replicating that result this year.

Pointedly, business backed two Democrats, Richard Bloom of Santa Monica and Marc Levine of San Rafael, who knocked off union-supported Assembly incumbents by winning spots on the November ballot where Republican and independent voters could affect outcomes.

Those wins demonstrated that business could play hardball in a top-two system and, coupled with the legislative wins that followed, created angst among liberal activists.

Business once again backed mods in vacant Democratic districts in Tuesday’s election while unions and allies, hoping to recoup, spent heavily on their favorites.

About a half-dozen legislative seats were in play, with the 16th Assembly District in Alameda and Contra Costa counties the centerpiece. There, Steve Glazer, a Democratic campaign consultant who advised the California Chamber of Commerce on 2012 strategy, was dueling with unionist Tim Sbranti.

As votes were being cast Tuesday, the plot thickened as billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer pledged in Los Angeles to help like-minded Democrats win legislative seats this year.

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