By Ken Stone
In claiming runner-up victory Tuesday in the governor primary, Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox slammed “one-party elections” as “just plain un-American.”
That was a swipe at the state’s open primary system enacted in June 2010 as Proposition 14. The constitutional amendment allows voters of any party (or no party) to pick the top two for a runoff — sometimes from the same party.
Several blocks away from Cox, who held court at the U.S. Grant Hotel, former GOP Assemblyman Jeff Marston was watching Cox on TV at Golden Hall — and defending his baby.Marston was co-chair of the Independent Voter Project, which lobbied for the open primary system in California.
“We think it’s been great, frankly,” said the San Carlos resident. “This is exactly what we wanted.”
Marston dismissed Democrats like Rep. Nancy Pelosi (quoted as saying “It is terrible”) and Republicans like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (“I hate the top-two”) who oppose the so-called jungle primary.
“So Democrats are freaking out and Republicans are freaking out,” said Marston, 62. “We’re going: Yeahhh, this is what it’s all about. This is about giving the voters a choice, and it’s about not going into an election knowing what’s going to happen.”
Marston mocked party operatives, consultants and media members who say the open primary system failed in its mission of “moderating” candidates for state and federal office.
“There was no promise of moderating,” he said. “This is one of the great fallacies. … It was never about electing moderates.”Instead, the top-two system was about electing people who are more responsible to the voters at large, he said, “and it was also about allowing the decline-to-state voters to have a say in the process.”
Marston, a former president of the San Diego State University Alumni Association, spent only 177 days in the Assembly, elected at age 34 in the 78th District.
But he’s spent years singing the praises of open primaries — and answering its critics.
“I’ve had a whole bunch of friends who are saying: ‘This is all terrible because we’re getting all this stuff in the 49th (Congressional) District where they’re (doing) this and that,'” he said.
His reaction: “Oh, like that’s never happened before?”The Independent Voter Project — seeded by a $1 million grant from former San Diego Padres owner John Moores — was the 2006 brainchild of former San Diego legislator Steve Peace (a Democrat), Republican Marston and drug-company lobbyist Dan Howle.
Now Marston bemoans the media obsession over who wins and loses in the top-two system — Democrats vs. Republicans.
“And we don’t care,” said the self-described political junkie, now a political and PR consultant with IVC Media.
(A Republican’s drive to repeal the top-two system via the November 2018 ballot fell short of the needed 585,407 petition signatures.)
Also at a buzzing Golden Hall, aka Election Central, was another former Assembly member present for the creation of the open-primary system.
Lori Saldaña recalls a political roll of the dice during a budget standoff.
Needing a then-supermajority to pass the budget, Assembly members were up at 2 a.m. late in the legislative session trying to wrangle GOP votes.The key was Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado of San Luis Obispo County.
“Abel wanted to run for lieutenant governor, and he knew he didn’t have a chance to get out of a Republican primary,” Saldaña said. “But he thought he could make it through if he was able to get through as a top-two.”
She recalled texting people associated with the potential open-primary ballot measure.
“Basically they were saying: ‘Look, Lori, you can do the deal now to get Abel Maldonado to vote on the Senate side for the budget, or you can keep battling over the budget and we’re going to put it on the ballot anyway,” she said while awaiting her fate in a county Board of Supervisors race.
She was told that open-primary advocates had $1 million ready to go.“So I was telling the other [Democratic] caucus members this story,” she said. “I said: Look, the best thing we can do is put it on the ballot ourselves, and maybe [the public] won’t trust the legislators and they’ll vote against it.
“But it didn’t work.”
(Prop. 14 passed with 54 percent approval, and Maldonado won a short stint as lieutenant governor.)
Saldaña said she didn’t like using the open primary as bait for a budget deal, but delays in passing it pained her.
“People literally died from lack of health care, from lack of in-home support services,” she said.
So she swallowed hard and backed efforts to put the measure on the ballot.“It really was for Republicans, by Republicans and of Republicans,” she said.
Not that it’s still seen that way.
Nearby, Republican congressional candidate Diane Harkey finished a TV interview while leading in the 49th District and took Times of San Diego questions on the open primary.
Was it a plus or a minus?
“For Republicans, it’s probably a bit of a minus,” Harkey said, “because it allows people not to join a party and they can be decline-to-state, and they can still vote in the primary and be included.”
Before the top-two system became law, she said, “you kind of had to pick a side.”
But another reason why Republican voter registration is declining is “because we’re not winning,” she said. “People don’t want to be (in) the loser party. They don’t want to join the loser team.”
Sympathetic was Saldaña.
“If you’re going to have political parties,” she said, “then you want to have them bring forward their strongest candidates. And we see what happens in the nonpartisan races when you don’t.”
She alluded to her own bruising contest.
“Interparty fights … are not about bringing forward the strongest candidate,” she said. “It’s really about just attacking. I don’t like the process that (allows) that.”
Saldaña eventually lost a place on the November ballot to fellow Democrat and former Assembly colleague Nathan Fletcher, whose own District 4 supervisor race (for a nonpartisan office) had jungle-primary aspects.
Standing with his wife, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat offered his own critique of the open primary.
“I think when you see the games that are being played, it would make sense to allow each party to nominate their preferred candidate,” he said.
Offered Lorena: “I never supported open primary in the first place, and I think it’s ripe for abuse. It allows parties to play against each other, and I think that partisan offices should be decided by those within a party.”
Yet another Assembly member — Todd Gloria of San Diego — didn’t offer a defense or diss of the system.“The voters approved it,” he said. “So it’s the law. And anyone who wants to complain — take that up with the voters.”
But how does he think it’s panning out?
“You know, I don’t know,” Gloria said. “I believe it was explained to be a moderating effort. I’m not so sure that that’s in evidence. But it’s also a reflection of the times that we’re in. These are not moderate times.”
Gloria said strong voices on both sides are “maybe overwhelming the functional improvements of the jungle primary.”
But he wouldn’t necessarily turn back the clock to pre-2012 (the first year of California’s open primary).
He noted two Democrats advancing to a November runoff in the 76th Assembly District — Elizabeth Warren of Oceanside and Encinitas Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath.
“As a proud Democrat, I have no quarrel with that,” Gloria said. “I’ve heard a lot of these concerns and complaints. I’m a guy who respects what the voters decide.”
Republican Marston, the former speaker and debater on behalf of the open primary, would appreciate that sentiment.
Eventually, he said, the system will be to the public’s advantage.
“Voters are not stupid,” he said. “They’ll figure it out.”
Updated at 11:20 a.m. June 8, 2018
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: