Editorial: California’s historic primary election can change state’s course

Californians who haven’t already sent in mail ballots will go to the polls Tuesday to cast their votes in races from governor to city council. At least, some of them will.

If history is any indication, just a fraction of those registered to vote – and even fewer of those eligible to vote – will bother to do so.

That’s too bad. They will miss out on a historic election as the top-two primary gets its first tryout in statewide contests. Voters will be allowed to cross party lines to pick whichever candidate for office appeals to them most, no matter their designation.

Top two, passed by voters four years ago, has already shifted political dynamics in new and exciting ways, most explosively in congressional and state legislative races. It’s added a new spice of competition to elections, helping to draw public attention to races previously as compelling as watching bread rise. That’s good for democracy. A healthy challenge helps keep elected officials on their toes and working in our best interests, rather than their own.

The California secretary of state and controller’s races are of particular importance Tuesday. Traditionally, these unexciting down-ballot races have had primaries that were all but foregone victories for party-backed candidates who would move on to the fall runoff. This arrangement discouraged other candidates from the same parties, particularly more moderate ones, from running.

The top-two system has changed that for the better, bringing in a much more diverse crowd in many of the races.

That’s certainly the case for the California secretary of state job, the state’s top election official. There are four eminently qualified candidates running – two Democrats, a Republican and one independent – in a race where voters in the recent past would have been lucky to find one. In this case, The Sacramento Bee editorial board recommends state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, and Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, as the best of a pretty impressive field.

In the controller’s race, former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez of Los Angeles is the Democratic favorite, as least as far as big-name endorsements go. With top two, another Democrat, Betty Yee, has a good shot at getting into the general election. She might not have tried were it not for top two. That’s a victory, albeit a small one, for voters. The Bee endorsed Yee and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, in the primary race for controller.

The editorial board has made recommendations in competitive state and local races. We’re waiting to endorse in races that won’t be decided until November, including some that seem competitive from the campaign ads on television and glossy color mailers sent to voters’ homes. The amount of campaign ads in the contest to succeed Darrell Steinberg for his state Senate seat, for example, makes Tuesday’s results seem crucial. But the top two candidates, Democratic Assemblymen Richard Pan and Roger Dickinson, are almost surely going to advance to the general election in November. That’s where the final decision will be made.

We also endorsed in nonpartisan races, such as state superintendent of public instruction, which may be decided Tuesday if one candidate receives more than 50 percent.

Teachers unions and other labor unions have spent more than $4.5 million on mailers and advertisements to get incumbent Tom Torlakson re-elected, reflecting his consistent backing of their agenda, whether it benefits students or not. He faces a vigorous challenge by Marshall Tuck, a former charter school executive who has most recently run the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

Though both are Democrats, they have sharply divergent views on important educational issues, from merit pay to teacher seniority. Though the job doesn’t have much authority, it has the considerable power of the bully pulpit. The Bee recommends Tuck. He has the energy and vision Torlakson lacks, and knows how to turn around failing schools.

This is a battle for the soul of California’s public education system.

The stakes are high in other races, too. Californians shouldn’t sit it out.