Every decade or so for the last 200 years, someone who isn't getting his way decides that it's time to "reform" politics.
After all, a system that elected these bozos to pass these laws has to be inherently defective. So from the election of 1800 debacle--in which Jefferson and Burr tied and then Burr killed Hamilton and tried to secede and invade Mexico--to the all white primaries that the Southern Democrats established in order to exclude black candidates, the mantra has been reform. This year's reform package comes right on cue. See also here, here and here.
Let's face it--the beloved Founding Fathers feared the populace. They established a system in which property owning white men could vote...sort of. They couldn't vote for their US Senator; he was chosen by the State Legislatures and they couldn't vote for President; he was chosen by electors who were in turn also chosen by State Legislatures.
These procedures were no accident. The Founders believed that if elections were decided by voters, then a certain, shall we say...unsophisticated political class would arise and be able to ignore elite opinion. Their nightmare came true in 1828 when Andrew Jackson was elected based on the fact that he killed a ton of Indians and then mowed British Soldiers down until they had to be stacked like cord wood.
"Reformers" have gradually made politics more democratic and the Founder's views have been realized...now the reformers are shocked and want to turn back the clock.
For the record, let me say that I'm pretty happy with the current system. However--even among my friends--I appear to be the only one.
Unfortunately everyone wants to change the system, but no one seems to understand why it is the way it is.
Before I discuss individual reforms, let me explain the fundamental problem.
The Fundamental Problem
Here it is: "We have winner take all elections in which very few people vote so the more power you give to voters, the worse the situation gets."*
All the reforms of the last 200 years have tried to give more power to the voters and the results have been exactly what the founders envisioned. Now, the elite opinion makers like Sue Clark Johnson and Lattie Coor are shocked at the results. That's because they've never been to Wal Mart.
The Golden Era
So let me take you back to the Golden Era of Arizona Politics, say, 1984 or so. Burton Barr was the House Majority Leader, Art Hamilton was the House Minority Leader and Alfredo Gutierrez ran the State Senate. Most long-term politicos will consider that period the very best of Arizona Government.
So what has changed?
Well, in 1984 men like Burton Barr controlled the money. Lobbyists gave their contributions to the leadership PACs and the leadership doled it out to individual candidates. That meant that the caucuses worked as a team and fell in line with leadership. If you weren't "statesmen like" you didn't come back--actually, if you weren't hand picked, you never got to the legislature in the first place. It worked like a well oiled machine...true, a political machine, but a well oiled one. The reformers raged against the machine and eventually the machine had to change.
The modern era changed with Prop 200 in 1986.
Prop. 200 was a reform effort that limited individual contributions to $200 and prohibited leadership PACs from donating to individual members. That change sparked a revolution that emasculated leadership and ended the need for a cohesive caucus.
That's how I got elected.
Of course, I wasn't the first one to see the opportunities...Stan Barnes was.
Barnes realized that he could raise money from a wide group of friends and didn't have to kiss Leadership's ring. So with incumbents unable to raise money from large donors or leadership, Barnes-- at 27--set up his own organization, raised money from outside sources and took his campaign directly to voters... defeating an incumbent along the way.
The next cycle saw the rise of the under 30 caucus--I ran against a team that included the House Majority Leader and was elected together with: David Schweikert, Lisa Graham, Keith Bee, Jim Buster, Chris Cummiskey and Chuck Blanchard. Soon followed by Jeff Groscost, Rusty Bowers and John Kaites.
The Leadership Era was over.
But you look at that list and say, those guys weren't so bad. That's because we still had some hurdles. We still had to raise money and we still had to fight for newspaper endorsements. In short, we couldn't be too crazy.
Clean Elections changed all that. I was the first one to point out that eliminating the chamber crowd and the lobbyists from the equation wasn't going to have the desired effect. I predicted that there would be "No New Moderates" and indeed, there were 16 self described moderates of the 33 Republicans when I served in the House. Now there are 35 Republicans in the House and maybe 3 could be called moderate.
Then there were the newspapers. We actually had newspapers in the mid 1980s. Endorsements mattered, and if you spent your campaign railing against the Federal Reserve Board, Trilateral Commission or Council on Foreign Relations, you weren't going to get far.
Those days are gone too. The Gazette, Citizen and Tribune are gone. The Republic's circulation has been gradually declining for the last 20 years, but the population of Maricopa County has skyrocketed in that time, so the paper's penetration and influence has plummeted...and it's not coming back. Unlike 20 years ago--when the paper could topple a sitting governor--the papers don't matter much now.
So now, if you think that Obama was born in Kenya or you think that AIDS was created by the CIA and you have 200 people who will give you $5 then you are golden. You don't even need to meet with Chamber and you don't give a damn what the Republic thinks. You have plenty of money and your own private grassroots army. Try to beat that combination Mr. Moderate Insurance Salesman from Arcadia.
Of course, the easiest way to create a legislature that shares the vision of Lattie Coor, Sue Clark Johnson and the Chamber is to enable Lattie Coor, Sue Clark Johnson and the Chamber pick the legislators...like the old days. But the Golden Era is over, so what should Lattie Coor, Sue Clark Johnson and the Chamber do now?
Well, first eliminate Clean Elections. That would force candidates to go through the filtering process of special interests. If they can't get the backing of business, utilities or the unions, they probably shouldn't be there anyway, should they Lattie?
Then repeal the 1986 campaign limits. Let everyone give as much money as they want, because, believe it or not, most of the crazy people don't have lots of rich friends. Then let leadership control the money. That way the recalcitrants who don't step into line will be stenciling plywood signs in their garage next cycle. Now that's what I call cohesion and Statesmanship.
What? You complain that allowing the elites to chose who gets elected is "undemocratic"? But that's entirely the point. The current system is what you get when you let actual voters decide elections. I happen to like the current system and the current legislature--of course, I also like to shop at Wal Mart.
Post Script: There are a handful of "reforms" that people think would make the process better--many of which involve repealing "reforms" that they think have made the process worse.
This is wrong on both accounts--most of the past reforms don't matter. Here are some examples of the conventional wisdom and why its wrong.
The theory is that term limits deprive the legislature of much needed perspective...yada yada yada. That argument might be true if we, you know, actually had term limits. I served with the current Senate President Bob Burns...18 years ago. In California, you can serve 8 years in each chamber and then you are banned for life. Now that's a term limit.
Burns, of course, took two years off and then ran again. I also served with Debbie McCune-Davis and Jack Brown who simply bounce back and forth between the House and Senate. There's no shortage of institutional memory, and no real limits
The legislature has consistently had about 1/3 of the body turn over each cycle with a handful of legislators staying for many years, but most staying less than 8...just like now.
This reform is the most ironic. Former Republic Editorial Page Editor, the hapless Keven Ann Willey made "independent" redistricting her personal cause and put all the muscle of the editorial board behind it with editorials that ran almost daily. The Democrats were solidly behind her effort because the legislature was supposed to re-write the districts and the legislature was in Republican hands.
Of course, no one could have predicted that in 2000, Democrats would tie the Senate at 15/15 and would have been able to draw districts of their choosing. Oops. Democrats also failed to understand that growth patterns move from rural and urban to suburban districts. That means Gilbert gets bigger and central Phoenix gets proportionately smaller. So an Independent Commission that just looks at math and doesn't take politics into account will give Democrats worse maps than a legislative compromise in which legacy Democratic legislators wield more power.
Ultimately, the maps looked pretty much like they did before--that's because people tend to live in groups with like minded people--so the Democrats sued and lost. When the maps were drawn in 2000, the Democrats had 15 seats in the Senate, now they have 12. But the good news is that Keven Willey moved to Texas, so it's not like she can screw it up next time.
"Independent" Redistricting is really just a means to an end. The real goal is "Competitive" districts. But that's a fallacy too. For some reason, people seem to think that if the district is half Republican and half Democratic, the candidates will be moderate. I have no idea why that is. Dude, it's a winner take all primary, followed by a winner take all General. That means the both parties will elect someone from the fringe and then they will fight it out in the General.
Al Melvin is in a competitive District, is he a moderate? His opponent was Cheryl Cage? Is she a moderate? How about the Tempe's District 17, are Ableser, Schapira and Cahil moderates? In the 1990's central Phoenix was considered a swing district and it was represented by very Conservative Margaret Updike and very liberal, Sue Labey.
Increase the Salary
This is my favorite fallacy. "Golly, if we just raise the pay, good people will run." No, if you raise the pay, Russell Pierce and Carl Seel will make more money. But I like Russell Pierce and Carl Seel, so that's fine with me.
Dude, the seats are competitive and they are won by people who know how to campaign and who don't have a lot of opportunity cost; they can spend months campaigning for free. If you raise the salary to $100,000, the same people will still win. You will bring in candidates who otherwise wouldn't run because they could be making more money elsewhere. But that doesn't mean they will win. We've had examples of candidates who make decent money running against incumbents. My favorite example is Art Nelson (Linda Brock Nelson's husband) who ran for two open seats and was crushed by David Schweikert and Lisa Graham.
Good campaigners beat bad campaigners no matter how high a salary the office pays.
Let's explore the fundamental problem a bit more.
When I was in the legislature, I represented a district of 126,000 people and I won my first election with a total of fewer than 6,000 votes. If anything, the numbers have gone down since then. In central Phoenix today, you can win the Democratic Primary--and thus the election--with 1,500 votes. The people who get elected are representative of those few thousand people. Who are those people? They are the ones who go out on August 24th and vote every two years. Frankly, they are not normal or in any way representative. That's because unlike the mass of the population, those voters care. They have strong opinions they know the candidates and they vote. Voters who are well informed and have strong opinions are rarely moderate.