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.