Open Primaries: William Vocke Interviews Abel Maldonado, Lieutenant Governor of California

May 10, 2010

Under the current system, California has a deadlocked, polarized legislature that can't get anything done, says Lt. Gov. Maldonado. The solution is to create an open primary system. California voters will vote on this proposal in June.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Welcome. I'm William Vocke, with the Carnegie Council. I'm pleased today to have with us as our guest the lieutenant governor of California, Mr. Abel Maldonado.

Your Honor, it's a pleasure to have you here.

ABEL MALDONADO: It's great to be here. It's great to be here at your beautiful location.

Thank you very much.

Before we get started with talking about the issue that we're interested in, which is open primaries, let me ask a little bit about your background. I know that you were nominated by Governor Schwarzenegger and confirmed by the legislature as lieutenant governor this past April. Tell us a little bit more about how you got to where you are.

It started at a very young age. I come from a small family business. My mother and my father started a small farming family, growing broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, celery, and strawberries, shipping it here, mostly to the Eastern Coast and, obviously, worldwide. In 1993, I ran into this thing called government, and I decided to run for city council. I must tell you that when I first ran in 1993, as a 25-year-old council member, I never thought I'd be the number-two person in California. And here I am. It's a great honor.

You have had great progress in your career—council, mayor, assembly, state senator, and now lieutenant governor.


WILLIAM VOCKE: And the area of California you're from?

ABEL MALDONADO: I represent central California. I was born and raised in Santa Maria, California. It's the most northern part in the county of Santa Barbara. But my senatorial district represents five counties: Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara Counties.

WILLIAM VOCKE: So you're north of Los Angeles and along the coast? Is that right?

That's correct. I represent almost a third of the California coastline. It's a beautiful district. I have Carmel, Pebble Beach, Big Sur. I can just go on and on and on. I have to tell you, it's an honor to serve the people of the 15th District.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Why are you here in New York?

ABEL MALDONADO: I'm here to do some interviews. Tonight I will be on a show that goes throughout the nation, The Colbert Report.

I don't think we can do the same kind of impact as The Colbert Report has.

I think you can. I think he just gets a little excited. But I think you can. And I'm here to talk about the open primary. I think we need to reform California. California is the largest state in the nation, the most populous state in the nation. It's the sixth or seventh-largest economy in the world. New York depends on California; we depend on New York. It's a great partnership. We've got to keep it going.

In terms of the open primary system, why reform the primary system? What's the current system in California?

ABEL MALDONADO: First of all, we've had open primary in the past, twice.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Right. That was Proposition 62.

ABEL MALDONADO: Yes. And we've had it twice. It was thrown out by the courts. This one mirrors the state of Washington. The state of Washington is the only other state that has an open primary system, just like the one I wrote in California, which is Proposition 14.

What's wrong with California? Let me tell you what's wrong with California. Partisanship, gridlock, dysfunction, chaos. We just can't come together. I believe it's because of the electoral process.

Explain for me why the current primary system does that.

What happens under the system that we have today? We have two things. Number one, we have a gerrymander system in place, where politicians went out of their way to draw their own lines to pick their voters. Since then, the people of California have passed Proposition 11, in which a citizens' commission will draw the lines. Now we have Proposition 14.

What do we have today, though, Will? We have a system today where, with gerrymandered districts and a closed right primary and a closed left primary, which is Republican and Democrat, we have folks that come up there—and, frankly, they're concerned about the next election, their next position. They're concerned about party bosses. They don't worry about what's really important, and that's the state of California. We get this partisanship.

I believe in my heart that there is a tax on California voters because of partisanship, because we don't get our job done on time. We have to go back and do it over and over. We just can't come together. And it's unfortunate, because, at the end of the day, there are some issues that shouldn't be Republican or Democrat issues. They should be California issues. Unfortunately, we can't come together.

Proposition 14 will change that.

So the current primary system, then, in effect, encourages polarity in the system, encourages pushing people to the extremes, and hence the partisanship you're talking about?

If you want to win a close primary on the Republican side, you have to veer hard to the right, and if you want to win a Democrat primary, you veer hard to the left. In the middle, where you have independents and decline-to-states, guess what they have to do in California? They have to ask for permission of a party to participate in a primary election.

So they have to choose one or the other.

ABEL MALDONADO: Well, they have to ask. It's not that they choose. They could choose, and if the party says, "We're not going to welcome you in the primary," they can't vote. Yet they're taxpayers just like me.

WILLIAM VOCKE: So if I was a California resident, when I would go up to vote in a primary election, I would have to choose the Republican or Democratic Party, based on what I registered for, and if I hadn't registered as a Republican or Democrat, then I would have to be admitted by the Republicans or admitted by the Democrats to their current party process.

That's correct. If you're a Republican in California, you get to go to the primary booth and you get a Republican ballot, primary ballot, and you get to vote. If you are a decline-to-state, you go and you have to, first of all, hope that the party allows you to participate in a primary, number one. Number two, if they do, then you have to ask them, "Hey, can I vote? Can I have one of your ballots?"

That's not democratic.

How big is the independent vote in California?

It's the fastest one growing. It's 21 percent and growing.

So that's 21 percent of the people who are, in a sense, disenfranchised.

ABEL MALDONADO: Just on decline-to-states, we're talking 3.6 million voters who have to ask a party for permission to vote, while they pay taxes every day like I do. That has to be reformed. Proposition 14, the open primary, reforms that.

One of the issues has to be, though, the level of turnout. I think that one of the issues with primaries is that, with low turnouts, the voters in primaries tend to be the most committed, the most ideological on the right or the left. Hence, the primary tends to be dominated by those polls. Couldn't we reform turnout?

ABEL MALDONADO: I think Proposition 14 does reform turnout. It increases participation, because now an independent or a decline-to-state can vote for whomever that person wants in the primary. Their vote is going to count. Once that process is over, the top two winners happen to go off in the general election, and more than likely, one of the top two is whoever a decline-to-state or independent voted for. So I think Proposition 14 not only reforms the process, it increases voter participation.

The way I understand it, then, Proposition 14 means that in the primary election everybody is on one ballot and the top two candidates move on to the general election.

ABEL MALDONADO: That's correct, regardless of party affiliation.

So we could have two Republicans running against each other or—

Or two Democrats.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Or two Independents.

ABEL MALDONADO: Or a Green and a Republican.

A Libertarian, et cetera.

That's correct. It's called freedom. It's called being free to vote, to choose whomever you want.

I can't imagine the political parties are very happy about this.

ABEL MALDONADO: No, they're not. They're concerned. First of all, they're concerned that they're not going to be able to manipulate members of the legislature. Under the system that we have today, if a member decides to vote their district, vote California, the party might say, "Wait a minute. You're veering too much to one way. We're going to rein you back. We're not going to endorse you in the next election, we're not going to give you any resources in the next election, and you're not going to win."

I think Proposition 14, one, will increase participation, and I think Republicans and Democrats do like it. The people that don't like it are the party bosses, the folks that are running these parties that say, "You know what? I want to do this. I want to control this." They are very afraid of the open primary.

What are some of the valid criticisms of the open primary, though?

Some people might say that you can't write in for November. I can see where that could be a point of contention by some folks. But you know what? We don't need write-ins at the end, because we don't want to taint the process once the top two are in place, number one. We don't want to game the system. The last thing we want is to have the two best candidates in June run off in November, and all of a sudden parties are coming in and doing write-in candidates, confusing voters. But that's kind of what they are talking about.

Now the other side is saying that it brings down third parties. Third parties are getting elected at the local level, where we have the open primary.

So this notion that it's something new—it's really not. When you run for county commissioner, when you run for supervisor, for mayor, for city council, the school district—

Those are essentially nonpartisan elections.

ABEL MALDONADO: They're open primaries.

That's another way of talking about this, as a nonpartisan election.

ABEL MALDONADO: That's right. It's a nonpartisan election.

WILLIAM VOCKE: In terms of the critiques of it and independents, won't it be typical, however, that in Orange County, noted as a conservative part of the state, you will probably end up with two Republicans as the two highest vote getters?

If they're the two best candidates in the primary, they'll be the top two vote getters. If they are the top two vote getters, they are going to be the two people in November, absolutely.

WILLIAM VOCKE: And that doesn't decrease options or choice because they are likely to both probably be more center-right or more right than the whole spectrum of—

ABEL MALDONADO: So if you're a Democrat in Orange County, you can say to yourself, "Our candidate didn't get in, but now we get to choose one of the better two Republicans that are running in November."

And in the past, you would have just never elected somebody.

ABEL MALDONADO: In the past they would go and vote for a Democrat, who was never going to win.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Right. I come from a county in Ohio that's like that. A Democrat never wins there.

ABEL MALDONADO: So now their vote is going to count. They are going to make a difference in every election. And that is good for democracy.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Why change the primary system instead of just encouraging more people to register and vote, which would have a similar impact? One of the problems is that, with low turnout, that emphasizes the extremes.

ABEL MALDONADO: The problem we have is that—

WILLIAM VOCKE: So Internet registration, et cetera.

First of all, a primary, especially a primary in an off-presidential election, is a very low turnout. We know that. But independents and decline-to-states aren't used to voting in primaries, so they just stay home. Under this initiative, they're going to be able to come out. Participation will increase.

We've seen it, Will. We've seen it in 1998, when we had a gubernatorial election and a non-presidential—voter participation increased. People had more options. People were there.

What else could we do? Obviously, redistricting is going to help. Obviously, Proposition 14 will help.

WILLIAM VOCKE: I have to ask you this question. Why, as a prominent Republican politician in California, are you in favor of this? It does seem to dramatically impact your party.

ABEL MALDONADO: First of all, I'm for family. Number two, I'm for my state. Number three, I'm for my party. We need to fix California. This notion of me sleeping under my desk at 3:00 in the morning because we can't come together to balance a budget in California is madness. It's ridiculous. This notion of having $62 billion budget deficits and sending people of California IOUs is chaotic. It's wrong. This notion of the legislature doing nothing and passing pieces of legislation that say, "We're not going to cuss for a week," and put a jar on my desk and put a quarter in there—that's dysfunction. That's what's wrong.

WILLIAM VOCKE: And so the underlying argument here is, decrease polarity, decrease partisanship, create more room for the center to have an impact.

ABEL MALDONADO: I don't know if it's for the center. I want debate. I want strong, hard debate. But, once the debate is over with, I want folks that can come together and say, "This is our state, and insolvency is not an option. IOUs are not an option. We need to govern. Governing is hard, but we need to move our great state forward."

WILLIAM VOCKE: I have to ask you one last question. In California, I think the Democratic Party is—what is it?—40 percent—


WILLIAM VOCKE: The Republican Party is 30-some percent—

ABEL MALDONADO: Thirty percent.

About 20 percent independents.

Is this simply a way to increase Republican registration?

ABEL MALDONADO: Registration in both parties is decreasing. People are just angry. They're mad. They're tired of the mess. They're saying, enough.

I hope Proposition 14 is the spark that says, "You know what? Politicians, wake up. We're watching and we're looking. We want you to govern."

We understand that we're in an economic crisis. Everybody knows that we have an economic crisis. There's not a person out there who is expecting a great budget. But they want a budget on time. They want us to do our job. I hope that 14 does that for us.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Perhaps we can move on and talk about some of those other issues. About the budget, what is California going to do about the budget? We hear California and Greece in the same phrase.

We have a legislature that loves to spend, spend, spend. We have a legislature that has no ramifications for doing the right thing. So what do we do? What does the legislature do? They spend, spend, spend.

They come up with bills that are not productive. And when it gets down to governing, nobody wants to govern, because they're afraid of hyper-partisanship. Guess what we get? We get on the verge of insolvency—a $62 billion debt in California. And what's the solution? Do nothing. Do nothing, because we want to get reelected.

WILLIAM VOCKE: And you get reelected by blaming it on the other guy, by the extreme partisanship.

ABEL MALDONADO: Under the system that we have today, you can do nothing and get reelected.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Because of the gerrymandering.

ABEL MALDONADO: Yes, gerrymandering and you have a closed primary system. You're going to get elected. I think last year we had 120 races. I think one changed or none changed. So what are the ramifications for doing nothing? Nothing. So what does the legislature do? It does nothing.

We need to fix that. This is a step. It's a step in the right direction. It's not going to fix it overnight. It's going to take some time, until we weed out what we have there today. But I have to tell you something. If Proposition 14 doesn't pass, then that means the people of California are happy with madness and dysfunction and gridlock and so forth. We have our work cut out.

Good luck with that.

Let's talk about another one of your responsibilities. I think you are chairman of the Commission for Economic Development in California. Around the country we have had issues of loss of industry, loss of jobs, international competition. What are some of the solutions you're talking about in California?

That is what I want to focus on the most. California today has a 12.4 percent unemployment rate. It's unacceptable. It's way too high. And as long as it stays there, with some foreclosures that we're having, we're never going to get out of the mess that we're in. You couple unemployment with foreclosures and a dysfunctional legislature. It's where we're at.

Economic development is the most important—I'm going to be the promoter-in-chief of jobs. I want to get out there and tell people about California. It's not a place to live. California is a way of life. It's a great state. Yes, sometimes they say it's a little crazy out there. The Left Coast, they call it. But you know what? It's a beautiful state. With good government and an open primary system, we're going to come back. I just hope that we can reform it in a way where we don't get back into this position that we're in today.

WILLIAM VOCKE: I agree with you about a beautiful state. I'm reminded as you say that of some of the ads—


WILLIAM VOCKE: I think that's what the ads say, with the governor: Come visit California.

But how about some more specific things? How about the loss of industry? What are some of the things we can do to re-create an American economy in which we make things? Is that something that you are focused on?

ABEL MALDONADO: Absolutely. Tax credits, very important. We just passed a bill by the legislature, SB 71, to provide green tax credits for businesses that want to put businesses in California under green technology. A first good step.

Homeowner's tax credit, $10,000. Another good step to create jobs, to build more houses in California.

We need to streamline the permit process. This notion of going to a counter and them telling you that you have to do this, this, this, this, and that is fine, but when they take you to a process where it's a year or two just to start up a business, that is wrong.

We need to coordinate. We need to coordinate California government with the federal government, with county government and city government. Once we coordinate all these things, we are—I've done it. I was a mayor. I was the economic development job czar in my city. We're going to do it now at a state level.

WILLIAM VOCKE: All the states are trying to do that, obviously. Tax credits sometimes are talked about as ways of simply moving unemployment around from one state to another. Is that specific to California? Is that something California is doing in relationship to the rest of the—

No. I think it's just one step. We're one of the only states in the nation that has an employment training panel, where we can train people to do a certain job. That is something that people don't talk about. We have CalBiz, the one-stop shop where you can go in and look at employment training, how you employ.

We have done so many things in California. You couple that with great wine, great produce, great weather, great beaches, and a beautiful state and a beautiful coastline. We have it all. We just have to bring it together, bring it home, to keep businesses there and attract—people want to go to California. I know we can compete. I know we can, if we want to.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Let's talk about that competition. A lot of the competition now is international competition. I know that California actually has offices overseas. There are a number of California people in Japan, in the Far East, in Europe, et cetera, Brussels, who are trying to promote California's development. How do you see California competing internationally? Is that something that looks effective to you?

It's getting harder. I'm in the produce business. I'm a farmer. I see those ships come in full of products imported to our country and I see those ships leave empty with [no] exports. That has to change. We have to be more competitive on a global basis. There are a lot of rules and regulations that come down from the federal government and from state government. Businesses finally say, what's the bottom line? Can we compete? If we can't compete, we move on.

But I must share this to the people of California and to the people of our country. For our farmers, it is important that we put some reforms in place to make sure that we keep farmers farming. This notion of buying our food from other parts of the world is something that I have some fears with. I'll tell you why. In America we serve a billion meals a day. They're pretty safe meals. They're good, safe meals, by California and American farmers. If you put a lot of regulations on farmers, guess where they're going to go? They're going to go elsewhere, where there are no regulations, where there are no standards. Frankly, we don't have the standards at the borders to bring in the produce that comes into our country.

Trade is important. The international competition is important. Global competition is hurting us, because you can go somewhere else. You get on a computer. You have fewer regulations than we do. You get to compete. You get to get the American consumer dollar.

Is that suggesting, then, subsidies for American farmers? Is that suggesting protection for American products by quotas or by tariffs? I'm a little confused about where you're going with that.

ABEL MALDONADO: You have to remember that I'm from California, and in California there are no subsidies for farmers—maybe just in the rice industry and, in the past, in the cotton industry. But subsidies are not there. The Midwest, that's a whole different ballgame. All I know is that in California, we just have to make sure that, as a state and as a federal government, we have a good immigration reform package in place that helps California farmers, that we have good regulations that protect consumers, but yet allow farmers to farm.

Let me share something with you, Will. When it gets harder to farm, guess what farmers do? They leave the land vacant. They put a Walmart store on their property. They don't want the headaches. That's happening. Or guess what? They put a Home Depot. They put a Costco. They put a whatever-you-want, a grocery store. And guess what? They stopped making farmland a long time ago. Every time you pave it, you're not going to see it as a farm anymore.

So farming is important to keep. Now, subsidies—we don't see them. We just want to make sure that regulations are in place where we can have safe consumer products, but yet have an atmosphere where farmers can farm.

WILLIAM VOCKE: It's fascinating, the background you come from. As you said, you're a farmer. It's essentially crops for the table, produce for the table. What have been some of the issues around the environment in that and some of the issues around labor in that? I would suspect, if it's like the farms I know in Ohio, a lot of the labor now is migrant labor.

ABEL MALDONADO: It is. That's why we need a complete, thorough immigration reform package that allows people to come to America on a temporary basis.

Let me backtrack a little bit—that allows people to come to America on a temporary basis—not amnesty, a temporary basis. My dad came here as a brazero in 1963. He was a temporary worker. After four years of being a good temporary worker, there was a process in place to get a green card. That's a big issue for America. We need to be focused on that.

When you talk about other areas—water. Look at what's happening in the Central Valley in California. We have a judge in California that is siding with the secretary of Interior and folks, saying that the wells can't come on because we have to protect the delta smelt. Well, I want to protect the delta smelt, but—

WILLIAM VOCKE: Delta smelt being a fish.

Being a small fish. I want to protect the delta smelt, but we've got to protect farmers, farmworkers, and people who live in the Central Valley. There is a little community there that has unemployment of 60 percent. That's Third World. That's unacceptable. Where is that balance, that fairness?

Now there are more regulations that are coming down the pike on air quality. I want to breathe good. I want my kids to breathe well. But we need to bring some common sense, with fair and balanced legislation that keeps farmers farming in California, that keeps businesses in California.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Back to the issue with the farming, about the international competition with the farming, is that unfair competition? Do you see that as unfair competition, the kiwis from New Zealand or the tomatoes from Mexico, et cetera?

I'm a free-trader. I believe in trade. It creates more economic stability and economic employment throughout the world, but most importantly, here in America. Here's the issue. Would I like to see no more produce coming in from other parts of the world? Yes. But that wouldn't be right for the consumer either. Consumers want to buy Californian, but they also want to go to the store and they want to buy it cheap. That's just the way it is. It's called competition.

All I want is, I want the produce coming from other parts of the world—if they are going to come here on free trade, I'm okay, but they'd better have the same standards that we have in California.

WILLIAM VOCKE: By standards, you are talking primarily now about labor and environmental?

ABEL MALDONADO: I'm talking about environmentally, labor, and I can go on and on and on. Same standards, same reentry when you apply medicine to your plants and so forth. If it's going to be fair, it has to be fair. Is there accountability and transparency in the standards that are coming from other parts of the world? If not, California farmers can't compete.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Because of price.

ABEL MALDONADO: Because of price. The cost of doing business in California is a lot more than doing business across the border in Mexico. I can guarantee you that.


ABEL MALDONADO: So the question is, do you feel safer eating Mexican products or American products? I'd venture to say, as an American farmer, mine is American. But you know what? Mexico has good products, too, and they're our neighbor. I just want standards.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Standards you consider fair and equitable.

Standards that are fair and that are safe. That's the most important thing. Will, it seems like every time there's a problem in America with a vegetable or fruit, it just seems like it comes from other parts of the world. Yet the California farmer or the American farmer is the one that gets hurt with the process. The media goes out there and says, "Don't eat spinach." Where did it come from? We don't know.

WILLIAM VOCKE: You don't eat any spinach. You don't eat the American spinach. You don't eat the—whatever.

Right. Maybe country of origin is important. I support country of origin. I think people in America prefer California produce.

WILLIAM VOCKE: I have to pay more for it.

Yes. It's more expensive to operate in America.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Certainly we'll pay more for organic produce.

ABEL MALDONADO: I'm sure you do. Right now, with gasoline up, taxes high, people barely making a living, when a family goes to the store, they're looking for good prices. I don't blame them. I want them to get good prices and good-quality, safe food, too.

Does this circle back around to our earlier discussion about open primaries? How does this relate to our discussion about open primaries and about a political process that can actually govern?

I think the open primary is going to help the whole state, even on what we just talked about, agriculture. It can't be labor against farmers. It can't be farmers against environmentalists. It can't be environmentalists against cities and counties. We're in this together. This is California.

WILLIAM VOCKE: So we're talking about moving away from single-issue politics and moving towards politics that looks at a whole community.

ABEL MALDONADO: I just think that if you get a member of the legislature who happens to be pragmatic, open-minded, and reasonable, they would understand that fairness is equity, and if you have a fair issue, you can bring people together and we're a better state.

We could have a good environment in California and safe produce and clean beaches. We could do that. What's wrong with that?

WILLIAM VOCKE: I don't think you would find anybody arguing in favor of the opposite.

But the problem we have is, we have some environmentalists who just say, "This only." We have farmers—I'm not exempt from it—who say, "We want only this." You have some folks who say, "We want only this." Nobody wants to move.

I was brought up in a household where my mom said, "Son, never compromise on your principles, but never be afraid to come up with a principled compromise." Proposition 14 will put people in place to come up with principled compromises that move states forward.

So it's not just about pragmatic, expedient politics, then.

ABEL MALDONADO: It's good government.

WILLIAM VOCKE: That's a good answer.

What we have today is broken government. It's dysfunctional.

What is your expectation?

ABEL MALDONADO: I have hope that the people of California will look at this and they'll say—

WILLIAM VOCKE: I know historically—I'm sorry to interrupt—this was actually, as you said earlier, back in the 1990s, something that California did.

ABEL MALDONADO: I hope that the people of California, in the next couple of weeks, say, "We don't want $62 billion deficits. We don't want members of the Senate and the Assembly sleeping under their desks. We don't want no-cussing-weeks-in-California legislation passed. We want a government that works, that moves forward." Proposition 14 will do that.

How does something that silly happen, no-cussing weeks?

ABEL MALDONADO: It's what comes out of a body that has no ramifications for losing their seats. It's silly. I was nominated by the governor, and it took me 155 days to get confirmed—the lieutenant governor of California—but we can do a no-cussing week in three days. You go figure that one out. The place is broken. The politicians want to focus on things that don't matter, have never seen a pay raise they don't like. I can just go on and on and on.

We have about two minutes left here. Are there any last points you would like to make as we finish the discussion here?

As California goes, so goes the nation.

WILLIAM VOCKE: It certainly is the most populous state.

ABEL MALDONADO: I hope that once we demonstrate—and maybe my confirmation. I hope that my confirmation is that spark of bringing people together. I'm not against parties, Will. I'm a Republican, and I want a strong Republican Party. Actually, I want a strong Democrat Party, because competition is good. But I want a government that works. And I want a strong California before anything else.

In terms of what you are arguing for, it certainly matches the values, at least, here at the Council in New York. The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs has long stood for, not a particular partisan position, but for informed and strong debate on the issues. That has been our mission.

It has been a pleasure to have you here. We're happy to talk about this with you.

Thank you.

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