Grassroots democracy or insider politics?
The state Democratic Party’s rule requiring a candidates for governor to get 15 percent of the delegate votes at the state convention in order to appear on the primary ballot is a sitting target for those who yearn for a more freewheeling, open democratic process. The rule, which dates back to the early 1980s, smacks of the distasteful strong-arming tactics of party bosses and other insiders who hijack political decision-making to serve their own self-serving ends.
A few weeks ago, Scot Lehigh took aim at the rule, decrying the practice of convention delegates playing a “field-weeding function that properly belongs to primary voters.” Yesterday, his Globe colleague Joan Vennochi picked up where Lehigh left off, declaring that, when it comes to deciding who can run for statewide office, “Massachusetts Democrats aren’t very democratic.”
The gist of their argument is that party activists shouldn’t screen out candidates who they don’t want on the primary ballot, and voters should get to choose the nominee. There is plenty of funny business at the conventions to make you think they’re right. There is already speculation about various approaches that might be taken to game the Democrats’ upcoming gathering this June. Will supporters of Steve Grossman throw some votes to newcomer Juliette Kayyem in the hope that she siphons some women’s votes from (current) frontrunner Martha Coakley, Grossman’s chief rival (at the moment) for the nomination? Will Coakley’s forces go all-out to try to keep Kayyem off the ballot for the same reason?
Holy ward boss. It’s enough to make you pine for the wisdom of a good-government process liberal like Michael Dukakis.
But it turns out the Duke is one of the biggest champions of the 15 percent rule. “I’m a great believer in it,” he told the Globe in the run-up to the 2006 primary season. Dukakis was never a greater believer in the rule than in 1982, when his forces pushed hard to maintain it as he plotted his Democratic Party rematch with Ed King, the conservative one-time Massport official who had toppled Dukakis from office four years earlier. Dukakis desperately wanted a one-on-one primary against King, and his supporters used the 15 percent rule to keep then-Lt. Gov. Tom O’Neill off the primary ballot. “I didn’t want three people in the race for obvious reasons,” said Dukakis.
Stonehill College political science professor Peter Ubertaccio offers an impassioned defense of the 15 percent rule. He puts forward a strong case for parties exercising some control over who runs under their banner — and points out that those who don’t want any part in the process are free to run unaligned with any political party, as two independent are in fact doing in this year’s race for governor. As Ubertaccio points out, there are all sorts of rules that “impinge” on the complete expression of democratic rule, including the 10,000 signatures candidates must also gather to get on the primary ballot.
Far from an exercise in exclusionary insider politics, the caucus system and convention, he argues, provide some vital civic glue in a time when people feel a great disconnect from their government and political leaders. He puts the party caucuses and and local ward and town committee meetings together in the same category as local civic groups, PTAs, churches, and sports leagues. In other words, they help form the sort of “social capital” that Harvard political scientist — and Bowling Alone author — Robert Putnam argues has become all too scarce in modern life.
Ubertaccio also reminds us that political parties have a certain “hybrid” status, in which they are “neither purely private nor public entities.” Which means the only way anyone unhappy with the party rules can have a say in changing them is to become one of those disparaged insiders and get involved in the party doings.
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