After Super Tuesday,
progressives mull over missed opportunities
By Hans Johnson
March 7 was supposed to be a lucky day for opponents of California's Proposition 13. Since 1978, the notorious anti-tax initiative has jinxed plans for everything from reclamation of wetlands to public school construction. In this spring's primary, through a well-crafted counterattack called Proposition 26, opponents meant to overturn a key portion of the policy.
Spurred on by tales of crumbling and overcrowded classrooms, Prop 26 aimed to reduce the threshold for passage of local school funding measures from an almost unattainable 67 percent supermajority to the usual standard, more than 50 percent. Steering the pro-26 campaign was a broad coalition of teachers' unions and Bay Area business leaders. Pre-primary surveys showed the proposal headed for passage.
But on election day, California voters threw progressives a curve ball. Imperiled by high turnout from conservatives, Prop 26 failed by a narrow margin. Rejection of the measure was among a series of setbacks for liberals across the country.
Sixteen states and U.S. territories held primaries on so-called Super Tuesday, and six more Southern states weighed in one week later. While the most telling results came from California, voters in other states offered insights for trends to watch for in the fall. Progressives have their work cut out for them in generating turnout if they hope to to win some closely contested House seats and gain congressional control.
If any region is a bellwether, it's the Midwest. In Ohio, Republican Mike DeWine, a first-term senator seeking re-election this year, has been seen as especially vulnerable in Democratic calculations. But on March 7, DeWine managed to capture over a million votes in a hotly contested GOP primary vote. His leading foe, Ted Celeste, captured less than 400,000 votes in a tight four-way Democratic race. Overall, Republican voters outnumbered Democrats 3 to 2, a reassuring augur for DeWine as he heads toward November.
Ohio also played host to a closely watched congressional primary, testing the ability of Democrats to rein in one of their own and put their strongest horse forward this fall. Eight-term Rep. James Traficant, who peppers his floor speeches with Star Trek references, is beset by legal troubles and often casts his lot against his own party. But on March 7, a left-leaning coalition of disgruntled constituents came up short in a bid to topple Traficant. The inability to clear the field of other challengers may leave the seat ripe for GOP picking in the fall against a weak incumbent.
Likewise, in the race for an open seat vacated by nine-term Republican Rep. John Kasich, the numbers were not encouraging for progressives. Maryellen O'Shaughnessy captured the Democratic nomination in a cakewalk. But Republican voters, who gave their nod to Pat Tiberi, outnumbered their competitors at the polls by more than 2 to 1, suggesting the GOP will keep the seat.
Two weeks of heavy primary campaigning concluded on March 14 with balloting across the South. Because George W. Bush and Al Gore had already stolen any suspense from the vote-counters by nailing down their parties' top spots, some called the event "Stupid Tuesday." In backhand fashion, however, voters did offer a gauge to Democrats of how much McCain's absence had depressed GOP turnout - and possibly improved Gore's chances in the fall. Republicans had accounted for 63 percent of voters in Washington state balloting on Feb. 29 and, on March 7, outnumbered Democrats by more than 2 to 1 in Georgia. One week later, however, Democratic turnout actually exceeded that of Republicans in Louisiana and Oklahoma, two states that figure prominently on Bush's electoral roadmap.
Yet in another clear signal that voter anxiety about youth criminals remains ripe for exploitation, Californians gave sweeping approval to Prop 21, the "Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act." Through a get-tough plan mirroring a blueprint by former Gov. Pete Wilson, the proposal would prosecute many adolescent offenders as adults.
Despite the disappointments, balloting did include a few bright spots for progressives. While Californians were rejecting Prop 26 - and approving Prop 22, a closely watched measure banning same-sex marriages - Democratic voters in a Los Angeles-area district gave a primary win to labor ally Hilda Solis. She will replace nine-term Rep. Matt Martinez, who had irked liberal leaders by backing Prop 22 and opposing some abortion-rights measures. And, in a Silicon Valley district watched as a political barometer, voters seemed poised to replace U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell, a Republican, with Democrat Mike Honda in the fall.
Still, the failure of the school-funding measure in California seemed to leave many progressive activists a little flustered about the month's primary proceedings. In the wake of the vote, Gale Kaufman, the Prop 26 campaign manager who in 1998 masterminded the come-from-behind bid to defeat the anti-union "paycheck protection" initiative, pointed fingers at Gov. Gray Davis, who looked on as others struggled to undo the straitjacket on state spending.
Teachers, parents and some business leaders eager to improve California schools are discussing an initiative similar to Prop 26 they may place on the November ballot, in hopes that the wave of conservative-leaning voters who flooded the polls on March 7 will abate. The outcome of balloting this spring had California progressives, like their counterparts elsewhere, looking for second chances in the fall.
Hans Johnson writes about religion, labor and politics from Washington, where he is assistant editor of Academe magazine.
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