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Byline: Joe Gelman

THE new open primary system in California can lead to some very interesting scenarios that are worthy of consideration - the blurring of party affiliations, the threat of one party influencing the nominations of another party.

The most obvious, immediate consequence of the open primary, is the calculated blurring of party and ideological destinations, as many candidates work hard to de-emphasize their party affiliation and soften their stance on any issue deemed even remotely controversial, in a relentless effort to pander to potential crossover voters.

Some local candidates have already printed up fancy, full-color self-promoting brochures, complete with special effect photos. These brochures are full of cuddly children, nice senior citizens, and vague, focus-group-generated touchy-feely language that consultants and pollsters have recommended should be emphasized.

But what you won't find in these brochures are any indication of party affiliation or specific positions on tough issues. That's because the open primary encourages less principled candidates to move to the vague mushy middle, and avoid specific policy declarations that could get them in trouble with any segment of the voting public.

Count on all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, to declare their unyielding support for the always safe and important, but vague, issues of education, drug-free schools, the environment, crime control and fiscal responsibility.

Don't expect any controversial specifics.

I find this trend to be somewhat silly, shallow, distasteful and even dishonest. Candidates sanctimoniously declaring their ``strong support'' for universally popular, no-brainer issues is an insult to our intelligence.

As if anyone really expects candidates for public office to declare themselves to be in favor of ignorance, fiscal irresponsibility, drugs for kids, criminals and dirty drinking water. Give us all a break!

Most voters are more sophisticated than the candidates give them credit for.

Sens. Teddy Kennedy and Jesse Helms both declare themselves to be in favor of education, drug-free schools, the environment, crime control and fiscal responsibility. The real devil is in the details, which will not be honestly debated if the structure of our electoral system encourages our more unprincipled candidates to ``play it safe'' on the issues in order to get themselves elected.

The open primary and the blurring of party distinctions with nebulous yet universally popular campaign themes could lead to many other unintended consequences that go far beyond, and are even more disturbing, than the mere blurring of ideological clarity. It is truly a Pandora's box, all one has to do is use your imagination.

Take Richard Riordan for example. Recent statewide polling shows ``Republican'' Mayor Riordan is one of the most popular elected officials in the entire state, even more popular than the current leading Republican nominee for governor, Attorney General Dan Lungren.

Under the old system, it was extremely unlikely that a candidate like Riordan would ever be considered a realistic contender for a Republican nomination for statewide office, let alone for governor.

Riordan would be considered suspect, to say the least, by rank-and-file Republican primary voters who tend to be more conservative than the average voter, and certainly more conservative than Mayor Riordan who was ``neutral'' on Proposition 187 and against Proposition 209.

Yet if Mayor Riordan should throw his independently wealthy Republican hat in the ring for governor today under our new system, he would be considered an instantly viable candidate because of potential crossover voters in the open primary. Attorney General Lungren would suddenly find himself in the primary fight of his life.

In such a scenario, Lungren would be forced to expend much, if not all, of his financial resources in a bloody primary, which would greatly weaken him in a general election contest, should he survive the primary at all.

That would be reason enough for Democrats to actually encourage a Riordan-like candidacy.

The long-term implications could be stunning for California Republicans, and even national politics. What would a Riordan governorship look like?

As governor, Riordan would be the leading Republican official in the state. He would hold great sway over the California Republican Party as an organization, and he would be in a position to greatly influence the reapportionment process that will begin after the year 2,000.

To those who don't know, reapportionment, based on the year 2,000 census report, will determine the geographical shape and demographic makeup of every political district in the state.

It could very well determine which party controls the state Assembly, the state Senate, and even the U.S. House of Representatives given that Californians make up one-fifth of the House of Representatives, well into the next century.

The stakes are incredibly high.

Riordan's closest friend, confidant and top adviser, is a man by the name of Bill Wardlaw. Some have suggested that it is Wardlaw who is the real mayor of Los Angeles. Wardlaw has worked for Jerry Brown and Alan Cranston. He is a genuine FOB (Friend of Bill) who chaired President Clinton's 1992 campaign in California. He is a Lincoln Bedroom sleeper. He arranged for Riordan's first visit, and subsequent close relationship with the Clinton White House, and he arranged for Riordan's endorsement of Sen. Dianne Feinstein over the Republican nominee, and for Riordan's lack of endorsement of the Republican nominee for president in '96.

Wardlaw is by all accounts, the No. 1 Democratic operative on the West Coast, and he is the prime mover behind Riordan. Should Riordan become governor, Wardlaw will be right there in the thick of it, ``advising'' him on political strategy and critical reapportionment decisions.

This kind of scenario should make more than one Republican lose sleep at night, because, in effect, they would literally lose control of their own party in the largest state in the union, to the opposition.

A classic coup d'etat, such as this, could only be feasible with the open primary system.

But that is only one example of the kind of political intrigue that could unfold as a result of the open primary system, and I suspect that plenty smaller examples are available.

It is no wonder that both political parties are working hard to overturn this problematic legislation.

I must confess, that in the name of consistency, I oppose the judicial overturning of the open primary system. The people of this state have spoken. It was voted for by a clear majority, and it would be hypocritical of me to support the overturning of an initiative that was supported by a strong majority of the electorate.

What Republicans and Democrats should concentrate on, in my view, is electing principled honest candidates who display a flair for telling it like it is, not for telling it like they think we want to hear.

Voters should demand specifics, and not let candidates get away with vague, feel-good generalities.

If this occurs, then the open primary could turn out to be a positive restructuring of California politics.

But if it does not occur, as I suspect it will not, then we could be in for serious political intrigue, and dishonest, phony political rhetoric that will only contribute to the current cynical environment. It will be back to the drawing board to reform this latest reform.
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Title Annotation:VIEWPOINT
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 4, 1997

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