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Pyle: No system immune to extremism

Published April 12, 2013 5:34 pm
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Presaging, perhaps, a society dominated by technological networks, American government as we know it was put together by people who were keen to solve their problems by creating new systems.

Two-thirds, three-quarters, at least 35 years old, noon on the 20th day of January, Congress shall have the power to, etc., etc., etc. For all our florid talk of constitutional rights, most of the Constitution is a technical manual for choosing leaders and passing laws.

Thus it makes sense that when a group of politically minded Americans — or Utahns — are unhappy with the status quo, they are likely to create a new system, that will, they hope, bring about better results.

The extreme rightward lurch of Utah politics is the product of an unfortunate and unique system, a caucus and convention network that gives a few true-believing activists disproportionate power over the more numerous sensible middle.

A proposed solution is to allow other candidates to circulate petitions that would, with enough signatures, get them on a primary election ballot alongside the candidates chosen by the existing convention system. That primary, open to many more voters, would, in theory, pull the process to the political middle.

And, in theory, an even better system would be to do away with the conventions altogether and just allow any and all candidates to file for office and have all voters affiliated with each party winnow the field down to one nominee in a statewide primary.

As a journalist, I've seen both systems in action. The former in New York, the latter in Kansas. They are more open. But the results are not predictable.

In 2010, the New York Republican Party power structure inexplicably promoted the candidacy of Rick Lazio for governor. He was the man who was utterly destroyed by carpetbagger Hillary Clinton in the 2000 Senate race. He was effectively political road-kill when he was dubbed "Little Ricky" by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

The race became much more interesting when a self-made millionaire and tea party favorite named Carl Paladino, who wasn't even allowed to speak at the state party convention, used the kind of petition system being advocated for Utah (and a lot of his own money) to get on the GOP primary ballot. Paladino soundly dispatched Lazio in the primary, racking up 62 percent of the vote. (Before, predictably, losing to Democrat Andrew Cuomo by numbers that were the reverse of his primary triumph.)

For decades, the Kansas all-comers primary held the dominant Republicans to the center, nominating and, usually, electing moderate managers who balanced budgets and offended few. But in the last two election cycles, with no change in the system, the party and the state have been pulled far to the right.

With the active backing of Gov. Sam Brownback, GOP voters in low-turnout primaries have ousted long-serving legislative moderates and replaced them with folks who have been very comfortable voting for such Utah-like ideas as exempting the state from federal gun restrictions, cracking down on abortion and labor unions, making the tax system more regressive, even passing a bill that specifically prohibits state support of any kind of development that could be described as, horrors, "sustainable."

Meanwhile, the Sunflower State's two U.S. senators, Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, once considered moderate Republicans, have been voting with Utah's Mike Lee on such key issues as last week's gun control filibuster.

The Kansas situation may be an anomaly, triggered by the overwhelming name-recognition and fund-raising prowess Brownback built in two terms in the U.S. Senate. But it suggests that no system is immune to being captured by extremists.

If we want to pull the Utah political system more toward the center, it will take more than a revised primary system. It will take every tool in the political shed.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, fondly remembers the Senate campaign slogan of a Kansas cattleman, "Send an honest bull-shipper to Washington." Top that by email, gpyle@sltrib.com, or Twitter, @debatestate.




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