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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

When candidates can't lose, we all do

Portland, Oregon--The Oregonian printed an article from the Washington Post on May 5, titled “When candidates can’t lose, we all do,” that explored the lack of competition in Congressional races.

The piece was written by Bruce Reed, President of the Democratic Leadership Council and Marc Dunkelman, the Council’s Vice President for Strategy and Communication.

The points the authors make apply directly to the Oregon legislature and the current campaign season, witness the following excerpts with substitutions:

“Competition and democracy go hand in hand…But real competition is still a rare commodity in the (Oregon legislature).”

“The relative comfort that most members of (the Oregon legislature) enjoy…diminishes the power voters can exert over the agenda in (Salem). When members can’t lose, voters do—because it takes the pressure off (the legislature) to get the job done.”

“Besides letting members off the hook for failing to do the people’s business, noncompetitive districts also suppress voter participation. Elections where the outcome is assumed from the start receive less media attention. Candidates do not feel as compelled to make their cases to the public. And voters aren’t stupid: When the outcome is essentially predetermined, there’s less reason to cast a ballot.”

“With (Oregonians) disillusioned by (Salem’s) seeming inability to move beyond the partisan divide that has poisoned the spirit of compromise, reducing the influence of special interests may be only part of the solution. If we want more (Oregonians) to participate in their democracy, we should make sure more of them have an opportunity to affect the outcome of the campaign for their local seat (in the Oregon Senate).”

The May 20 Democratic Primary drew record numbers of voters, but not as a result of any of the legislative races, of which most were uncontested.

Many insiders and the mainstream media regarded Senate District 23 as such a foregone conclusion that no real opportunities arose for the candidates to engage in public debates or forums, even though there were many clear differences in priorities between the candidates and important issues were on the table.

The public has no right to criticize a legislature that is selected under these conditions, and no reason to expect much to change.

“Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

Fortunately, for the voters of Senate District 23, there will still be an opportunity to make a choice between qualified candidates in November.

Technology is making hierarchies flatter and gatekeepers less effective at controlling the process.

They will not loosen their collective grip willingly.

When the general election ballots arrive, voters will have a choice in many races of either checking the box for the sole candidate (like in the former Soviet Union), or they may exercise their right to write in the name of the candidate of their choice.

Between now and then, I will continue to post my comments on the issues and look for opportunities to speak to voters, especially about the issues that never got an airing in the primary process.

Here’s one: both candidates for Senate District 23 are strong supporters of investments in education, but only Sean Cruz has announced his support for the multimillion dollar bond measure that Portland Community College will put before the voters in the fall.

This is a crucial matter for Senate District 23, its PCC SE campus and the neighborhoods it serves, but the subject never came up.

Many insiders had their minds made up on the race a year ago, when there was only one candidate. Many were already pledged to support her campaign.

They had no incentive to promote speaking opportunities that would offer a platform for an opponent.

Most weren’t residents of Senate District 23 either, and the special interest endorsement people were deaf to the issues specific to the district.

The World Wide Web can fix some of that, and over time it will fix much more.

Meanwhile, the campaign will move into Write-in mode.

More comments on the way.

--Sean Cruz

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