Fix the politics

I wrote a column for Sunday’s MetroWest Daily News surveying the state’s political dysfunction. That dysfunction is reflected the fact that no one wants to run for office – our state is last in the nation in competitive races. Smart people choose not to run, especially for the Legislature because it costs too much, incumbents have an all but insurmountable advantage and the Beacon Hill political culture is so ingrained that they probably won’t be able to make a difference if they get elected.

Follow the link for more exposition. What I’d like from BMG is feedback on some suggested structural changes – especially the “Open Primary” system now being considered in California – which I’ll list after the jump.

What can be done? CommonWealth magazine sent a reporter to Minnesota, where 100 percent of state legislative races were contested last year, to examine the legal and cultural differences. There, Alison Lobron reported, people run for office even if they can’t win, because they consider it the patriotic thing to do.

That attitude wouldn’t easily transplant to Massachusetts, but some of Minnesota’s practices, like public financing for legislative candidates and a cap on campaign spending, could. A panel discussion Thursday sponsored by MassINC, the nonpartisan think tank that publishes CommonWealth, brought out several reforms that could reduce our political dysfunction, including:

– Don’t allow candidates to carry over campaign warchests to the next election cycle. Incumbents raise money even when an opponent is nowhere in sight, because it’s easy to hit up special interests and because a fat warchest discourages challengers.

Ever wondered, for instance, why Sal DiMasi ran for re-election last year only to resign three weeks after taking office again as House Speaker? One reason is he was able to raise hundreds of thousands in campaign cash – everyone has to give to the Speaker – even though he had no opponent. He carried more than $300,000 into his political retirement.

In Minnesota, after the election, all unspent campaign funds are turned over to the parties, evening the playing field for incumbents and challengers.

– Don’t let people who do business with the government contribute money to candidates. Don’t let lobbyists contribute to campaigns, or do fund-raising for candidates. Prohibit public employees from giving to the campaigns of their bosses.

At the MassINC forum, Sam Yoon, a Boston city councilor running for mayor, said Tom Menino would head into this year’s campaign with a $1.5 million war chest. Boston’s 23,000 city employees are encouraged to support the mayor’s re-election efforts, a practice illegal in other cities.

– Switch to a part-time legislature. This reduces the insider mentality, as well as opening up government service to people with a wider range of occupations and experiences.

– Term limits. As it stands, just about the only time you have a contested race in Massachusetts is when there’s an open seat.

– Redistricting reform. California voters created an independent redistricting commission by initiative petition after the state Legislature balked. That’s what it will take in Massachusetts, too.

– Public campaign financing, which won’t come without a fight. Voters approved the Clean Elections Law in 1998, but the Legislature, led by Speaker Tom Finneran, refused to fund it, and finally repealed it in 2003.

None of those would guarantee the return of two-party politics to Massachusetts. Republican registration is at 12 percent, and not likely to recover soon.

So here’s another idea: California voters will consider a proposal in 2010 to create what they are calling an Open Primary. All candidates would appear on the same primary ballot, regardless of party, and all voters could participate. The top two candidates, whatever their party, would square off in the general election. It could be a Democrat and a Republican, or it could be two Democrats or two Republicans.

In California, the Open Primary proposal, similar to current practice in Washington state, is seen as a way to give an advantage to moderates. Here, it could make it more likely that voters in the general election actually have a choice of candidates.

The Open Primary initiative was put on California’s ballot because a single state rep demanded it in return for his vote settling that state’s budget impasse. Party officials – Republican, Democrat and third parties – hate it. But it has strong backing from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who knows as much as anyone about using referendum campaigns to leverage government reform.

That’s how real reform could happen in Massachusetts as well. Take a handful of the suggestions listed above, package them into a ballot question, and get a candidate for governor to carry that banner into battle. Deval Patrick could do it to win back his outsider credentials. Charlie Baker, considering a Republican run for governor, could become the candidate of reform.

I’ve got a bumper sticker for them: Fix the politics.

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33 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. What? There's a problem?

    I live in the 34th Middlesex district, where there is no end to the excitement.  Open primary would perhaps be better, though almost everyone is registered D or U, so in effect we already have an open primary.

  2. eh

    Term limits are antithetical to democracy.  No reason for them at all.

    The Open Primary system is better than it sounds.  Louisiana Republicans have become expert at gaming that system there, the only state where it is used.  Sorta-Democrats and Usetabe-Democrats are flooded into the race, dividing up the results enough to sneak two Republicans to the final round.  

    Running this state is a full-time job and requires a full-time legislature.

    I like Clean Elections and I'm surprised I don't see extending legislative terms on here.  One major problem is that everybody is always running for re-election due to the 2-year term.

    All that said, we all know the major problem in Massachusetts -- we have only one viable political party.  This state is non-competitive because only one party is offering ideas or solutions that can gain the support of a notable number of people.  Changing the law to save the Massachusetts Republican Party from themselves isn't democratic in the least bit -- it's quite the opposite.  It's just a different kind of bailout.

    sabutai   @   Tue 4 Dec 7:00 PM
    • Term limits are antithetical to democracy?

      The President of the United States---the highest office in the land---is subject to term limits.

      • Executive vs. legislative

        We've seen Presidents (Nixon, GWBush) use the apparatus to their advantage to swing elections.  Individual legislators wouldn't be able to do that.

      • So?

        Doesn't make it right.

        sabutai   @   Tue 4 Dec 7:00 PM
      • Why is that, do you think...

        The President of the United States---the highest office in the land---is subject to term limits.

        In the life of this nation, that's a relatively recent development.  

        Q. Prior to the enactment of the term limits, how many presidents had more than two terms?  

        A. one.

        Only one president, out of 32, ever was elected more than twice.   I would suggest that the law, as it stands is a distinction without a difference.

  3. My thoughts

    No to open primary; I'd rather voters choose a side.  Besides, I could have sworn I remembered a court case that threw that out in one state on freedom of association grounds.

    Yes to independent redistricting; I believe partisan districts are the biggest obstacle to competitive elections.

    No to term limits; voters should be able to send back the good ones.

    No to part-time legislature; this actually prohibits people in certain lines of work from serving, plus there is potential for conflict of interest.

    Financing - I tend to lean toward sunshine being the best disinfectant in these matters.

  4. Some good, some counterproductive

    There are some good ideas here, some that are already in place to varying degrees, and some that I think would be counterproductive to actually achieving better government.

    - Carrying over campaign war chests - This would be one of the strongest ways to encourage challengers. Make candidates donate them the charity at the end of the year.

    - Forbid contributions from lobbyists/those doing business with the government. We already prohibit contributions from registered lobbyists. There's no rule preventing them from rounding up $500 checks from their friends and family, however. As for the greater "those doing business with the state" category, I'd want to see more discussion. Can teachers not donate to someone who supports increased funding for education? The purpose of our low campaign donation limits is to prevent anyone from being able to buy influence. Just because one person donates $500 (or $1000 with a spouse) to a candidate doesn't mean they own that person. No one can run a campaign with a single wealthy donor (other than him/herself). Same for public employee contributions to a "boss." Does that mean that an RMV window agent can't donate to a candidate for Governor? Technically, the RMV is an executive agency.

    - Part time legislature: I think this is actually incredibly counterproductive. If we have a part time legislature as many other states do, that means that anyone who wants to be a Rep or Senator has to have a job that allows them to take a not-insignificant part of the year and devote it to another career. Few people are in a position that gives them that kind of flexibility. Teachers could legislate over the summer. Fishermen could probably find some time between seasons. Otherwise it's only self-employed business owners and the independently wealthy with the flexibility to make it work. I think we'd end up with even more lawyers and real estate agents in the legislature.

    - Term limits: I think these become less of an issue if there are more contested races. Term limits are good if the power of incumbency is so strong that no one else can ever get a chance. But if we get rid of warchests, term limits become somewhat moot. Plus, I'm personally a fan of having some more experienced legislators in the State House. And if a community likes their Rep, why force him or her out?

    - Redistricting reform: Agreed. We should have an independent commission.

    - Public campaign financing: Also agreed.

    - Open primary: This one I think will absolutely backfire in Massachusetts. The majority of our contested legislative races are primaries. These are relatively low turnout elections, giving an underfunded challenger the best chance to oust an incumbent. If challengers have to place top 2 in a primary and then win in a higher-turnout general election, they're going to need significantly more resources to be competitive. Bad idea for MA.

    There are some good ideas in here, but be careful about "packaging" them into a ballot question. Constitutionally, our ballot questions can only cover a single issue. Otherwise, they get thrown out.  

    • No omnibus ballot questions allowed.

      If you want to move this stuff via a ballot question, eury is absolutely right that it has to be one at a time.  Rick's idea of "packaging" some or all of his proposals as a single ballot question will not pass certification by the AG, especially after the SJC's ruling on the dog question from 2 years ago.

    • $quot;We already prohibit contributions from registered lobbyists.$quot;

      That's not right, is it?  IIRC there's a $200 limit (as opposed to a $500 limit for everyone else).

      • My bad

        I think you're right. I was confusing campaign contributions with the ethics rules. State employees aren't allowed to accept anything of value from a lobbyist (not even a cup of coffee), while the limit is $50 from non-lobbyists.

        So yeah, we can ban lobbyist contributions. But like I wrote, that doesn't necessarily prevent them from bundling $5000 in checks from their nearest and dearest.  

  5. business loves government

    Business has all kinds of money in politics because politicians have taken an interest in all kinds of business... health, science, green energy, whathaveyou. Businesses prefer to have the government tax the citizens to pay for their products, rather than have to compete in the marketplace to sell.  

    • Business loves government

      because government is like a big, dumb guy with plenty of money to spend.  And when the money runs out, the government just has to stick a gun in the taxpayers' face.

  6. Not a fan of term limits

    If you turn over the entire legislature every X number of years, then the one constant becomes the lobbyists and the bureaucrats.  All of a sudden, those people who have been in the system longest and know it best become the new power-brokers.

    I'd much rather see term limits for leadership positions within each house- such as Speaker, President and individual chairmanships.

  7. Modified term limits

    I've always been against term limits as undemocratic. But because of the power of incumbency, about the only time we see a close legislative race is when there's an open seat. In California, though, term limits have robbed the Legislature of experienced lawmakers. So I'd prefer a compromise: After eight years, make them sit out a term. But let them jump back into the fray after two years' rest.

    • $quot;term limits have robbed the Legislature of experienced lawmakers$quot;

      And that's bad because....?  Seriously, that's obviously the point of term limits.  It's a tradeoff -- the assumption is that the costs of frequent turnover (and there will be costs) are outweighed by the benefits.  Personally, I don't think the two-year break is workable.  

      • Help me, Mr. Lobbyist

        Isn't a legislature of neophytes particularly vulnerable to influences by special interests?

        The lobbyists are not term-limited.

        • It's not as if

          the non-term-limited legislature we've got seems especially insulated from lobbyist influence.  Maybe a legislative neophyte, faced with a legislative proposal from a lobbyist he/she has never met, might say "thanks for your input" and actually take the time to study it, rather than ram it through because the lobbyist is an old pal.

  8. Political symptom

    With Massachusetts, we have the wrong division of the polity into political parties. That's why we couldn't ever get rid of Finneran: there wasn't a political party one could vote for that was anti-Finneran.

    If I may state it harshly, neither of the opposition parties is appealing. Our local Republicans, when not pushing repugnant social policies, descend into government by soundbite and wrecking the future for next year's tax cut. The Greens tend to fly off into the land of moonbats. That leaves one party with all the adults, all the hacks, and all the progressives.

  9. some good ideas, some untintended consequences

    *I would definitely support public financing, very enthusiastically.

    *While I don't like people storing up huge warchests, eliminating them only means that politicians will be forced to fundraise more actively, as opposed to doing a few big events, then getting that big chest... and mostly sitting on it. When politicians run for office and need a lot of cash during a campaign cycle, that means they're spending hours and hours of their time on the phone. That's okay for someone not in office, but I'd rather my rep and senator actually doing their job. So if they build a small warchest, I'm okay with that.

    *On the part-time legislature idea: It's a 40-80 hour/week job. That's not going to change. If we don't pay people adequately to do it, then it completely closes the door to anyone who couldn't afford to give up their day job to be there. Or it means less effective government. There's a whole host of unintended consequences here.

    *I'm opposed to term limits. Anti-Democratic and lots of unintended consequences. There are lots of long-serving, great people out there. We don't need to throw out the good ones to get the bad ones gone too. There are other ways to get rid of the DINOs and hacks.

    *Redistricting reform isn't a bad idea, but I'm not wholly sold that a nonpartisan committee or the state judiciary will actually improve the districts.

    *The idea of an open primary is absolutely abhorrent and I'd fight that with my last living breath. The point of a primary in our system is to boil down each party to one candidate. A vastly superior idea would be instant runoff, requiring the eventual winner to get a real majority of the vote.


    You want competitive primaries and a more robust democracy? Support groups that support ousting DINOs. There's plenty of progressive organizations which challenge DINO incumbents on a regular basis.

    Not happy with that? Find a candidate or run yourself. Actions speak louder than words.

  10. spare change

    -Rolling over warchests sounds like a killer of competition. Make 'em dump it into the party coffers. There are ways to put it to good use, like providing health insurance for hopefuls, party outreach and GE efforts.

    -Terms limits may create an unelectable power structure in the form of professional staffers. These folks would make the deals and pull the strings.

    -An idea that was hatched at the reference forum: Provide health insurance for contenders. That will allow folks to run and cover a huge personal expense and risk.

  11. Newspaper editors hate the idea that the voters don't listen to them...

    Particularly the voters in Rep and Senate districts who are actually closer to their elected officials than at any other level.

    Editors seem to think that the voters are morons because they return legislative incumbents to office year after year. How about the voters might actually appreciate the efforts that legislators put in to working for their local constituents? How about the voters keep electing Democrats because the Republicans offer few, if any ideas, that deal with solving the problems of everyday people in this state?

    Elections are competitions of ideas. Those who are successful often, but not always, raise more money than their opponents; they have the support of their constituents who share the same political party; and ultimately, they persuade people to make a choice in the voting booth - no one has a gun put to their head.  

    If you don't like the choices voters make, go out and work to persuade them to make different choices.  Persuade them with better ideas and candidates who will work harder than the incumbents every day to address health care issues, education, transportation, etc. and provide constituent services. Stop raising phony issues and whining because you don't like the choices votesrs make.

    • Popularity contests and the marketplace of ideas

      I was recently involved in a local primary challenge.

      My experience canvassing and talking to voters was that the opponent's affability, constituent services, ability to bring the bacon to the district, and personal connections were decisive. Those factors explain why the incumbent remains in office.

      None of these things are "issues". Perhaps I could state this more charitably: competence and effectiveness trump ideology. This is more likely to be true for local races.

      • Well stated...

        But, competence and effectiveness are ideas as well.  If that is what voters value, more than ideology, perhaps ideologues would do well to get more competent and effective and focus on what matters to the voters.

        This also goes to my earlier point. These discussions, at their core, show complete disdain for the voters and the choices they make.  I don't always agree with the choices voters make, after all they do occasionally elect Republicans, but that means we have to work harder the next time.

  12. Ideaas, excellent and otherwise...

    Don't allow candidates to carry over campaign warchests to the next election cycle. Incumbents raise money even when an opponent is nowhere in sight, because it's easy to hit up special interests and because a fat warchest discourages challengers.

    I'll see this very excellent idea and raise you a time limit:  Deny, outright, the campaigning and the raising of funds for campaigning, outside of election years.   No candidate can declare prior to January and cannot, likewise, raise funds until Jan 01 for all elections held in Nov.

    Switch to a part-time legislature. This reduces the insider mentality, as well as opening up government service to people with a wider range of occupations and experiences.

    If you want to open things up to 'a wider range of occupations and experiences', you'd be better off putting in a saner pay structure. The actual congresscritters themselves are subject to incredible scrutiny and have their pay more or less held hostage to political winds.  On the other hand, we hear about these 100K+ patronage jobs in the shadows.  Reform the pay and don't worry about part-time/full-time. That's not a reasonable concern.  In fact, if you reform the pay scales over the entire government, you might get your willingness to build vast war-chests limited to boot.

    Term limits. As it stands, just about the only time you have a contested race in Massachusetts is when there's an open seat.

    But a fair portion of the time, the incumbent is doing an excellent job! I think that greater involvement in elections  (more contested elections) will only spur the good incumbents to be better and raise the bar overall. But term limits... defined as the only time a person is banned from doing a job for the sole reason that they've done it before... don't rise to the level of systemic problems and can have the deleterious effect of automatically  removing competent people from positions of authority.

    In addition, this clashes with your idea for part-time positons: if you wish to get more people to run for election, you have to give them  at least the chance of making a career out of it.   Only dilettantes and lawyers can afford to take a couple years to be a congresscritter.  For many people, a change of career is a big step.  Too many of the people we might want in government (the careful and deliberative kind) might be scared away by the sheer job insecurity of it all. Tighten up that, and you might have something.

    Public campaign financing, which won't come without a fight. Voters approved the Clean Elections Law in 1998, but the Legislature, led by Speaker Tom Finneran, refused to fund it, and finally repealed it in 2003.

    I would take your idea of 'no war-chest' carryover and marry it to this: instead of redistributing leftover funds to state and local parties, they all go into the public fund. This can be transformed over time until we do away with 'war-chests' altogether.  

  13. What choices?

    Stop raising phony issues and whining because you don't like the choices voters make.

    What choices? Just 17 percent of legislative races were contested last year. That means 83 percent of votes had no choice. Can anyone remember the last contested race for state auditor? How long since we saw a U.S. House race won by less than 20 percent?

    If not having opposition is a sign that voters are absolutely pleased with the office-holders they have, Mass. must be full of euphoric, satisfied citizens. Right.

  14. Look in the mirror...

    There are lots of talented people who will never run for office because newspapers are more interested in every irrelevant detail of people's personal lives rather than real ideas for improving people's lives.

    Newspapers are losing readership every day because they no longer connect with the realities of people's lives.  They would rather focus on the inanities of rearranging the system of elections, the ups and downs of political campaigning, and personal foibles of elected officials than on any real day-to-day focus on issues that matter to people's lives.

    If newspapers focussed on the choices that elected officials make when they vote on issues, the substantive disagreements between the candidates and parties, and how that affected those issues that matter to people rather than the dross of the primary post in this thread, they might actually regain some readership and have an impact. But that would require that you rewarded reporters for actually learning something rather than their ability to play the gotcha game.

  15. More challenges, not just more Republicans

    I agree with the idea to not allow campaign warchests to roll over. I think that when an incumbent has way more money than a challenger could ever home to raise in an election cycle, that incumbent becomes untouchable.

    Look at Tom Petrolati as an example. He's got a TON in his chest, and no one ever runs against him. Anyone who did would surely lose. And he behaves like a tyrant, knowing that he is untouchable.

    I also don't agree with term limits. Why take choices away from voters?

    There is one point that I haven't seen mentioned -- some people are looking for "competition" because they want to see more Republicans. But Massachusetts is a very Democratic state. A mostly Democratic legislature is what the people are voting for, right?

    In other words, why do we need precisely a two-party system? Why aren't we lamenting the lack of Libertarian or Communist candidates in our elections?

    We don't need Republicans to keep us in check -- any challenger could do the job. I wouldn't trade Tom Petrolati for some random Republican. I'd want another Democrat to take his spot, because I generally agree with the Democratic platform, and don't agree with the Republican platform.

    Therefore the biggest problem I see is that Democrats rarely challenge each other, except when a seat becomes vacant. How do we crack that nut?  

  16. I agree

    I've given up hope that the Republicans will bring back competition and save the Commonwealth. Their positions are lame, their tactics are lamer and the national Republican party is a handicap even for the reasonable Bay State Republicans.

    (I've also given up hope that traditional newspaper reporting of high quality will save the Commonwealth, though, as a 29-year veteran in this business, it hurts me to say it. Newspapers are as weak as the state GOP right now, and I can't see them providing the resources needed to do the job.)

    So we either empower third parties more, or bring competition into the Democratic party, where it is currently squelched by the power of incumbency and the powers of Legislative leaders. That's what I think we might get from an open primary, an instant run-off system or some similar reform.  

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