Ben Ysursa

Ben Ysursa

Voter confusion does happen, and a guy immersed for a third of a century in running a state’s elections certainly would be sensitized to that. And to attempted end runs around the system, too.

So Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa seems right in his proposal – which looks likely to fly this week through the soon-ending legislature – to require that when a person legally changes his or her name to a political slogan and then runs for office, that the ballot include (just as record store rack jobbers did with the musician Prince) a note that this person was formerly known as, whatever. In this case, the candidate name “Pro-Life“, formerly known as Marvin Richardson. Ysursa pointed out that some voters may check off “Pro-Life” thinking they’re supporting an issue, and another candidate for the Senate as well, resulting in an “overvote” – invalid balloting.

Richardson’s – ah, Pro-Life’s – response was predictably negative: “It’s pretty stupid, really, to say that a voter doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

The problem is that Richardson’s name-change gambit has to be premised on just that kind of confusion: To encourage a voter to approve him based on approval of an issue. Why else would Marvin Richardson, running as Marvin Richardson campaign on a pro-life platform, not be good enough? You periodically see candidates with unusual names on the ballot (say, the perennial Mike the Mover in Washington). Most of them don’t generate any real confusion, though. “Pro-Life” does. If ballots should be clear and simple, and they should be, the added bit of information Ysursa calls for ought to help.

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Idaho

The candidate filing deadline still is months away in Washington, but there are indicators that Republicans in the Evergreen state may be as troubled in their candidate recruitment this year as they were south of Columbia, where a bunch of challenge-able Democrats were left with a free ride.

The Tacoma News Tribune has been tracking some of the fallout from internal disputes in the state Senate Republican caucus growing out of allegations against Senator Pam Roach, who was described as abusive toward the party’s caucus staff. (And there have been issues with her own staff too, but that’s another story.)

Something else the paper ran into was a letter sent last week to fellow caucus members from Senator Don Benton, R-Vancouver, who is disquieted at the level of Republican candidate recruitment so far: “This is a sad commentary on the effectiveness of our whole team in recruiting candidates. Think about it seriously, 16 Democrat seats up, seven where we stand a good chance … and only two candidates. Holy cow does anyone see a problem here?” And the Republicans are pretty far down as it is; the Democratic 32-17 edge is near to two-thirds control.

On one hand, candidate recruitment is far from done; the deadline is June 6. But the reality is that legislative candidates challenging incumbents have been running and organizing long before that; five months ordinarily isn’t enough to pull off such a major effort. Legislative districts in Washington are large enough, especially on the Senate side, that serious work on such an effort should be underway toward the start of the calendar year.

Benton’s concerns seem solidly based.

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And right after the Claude Dallas story from Boise, which has as its theme a governmental coverup of incompetence, read this column from Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times, which is about how that same government is watching us, all of us ever more closely.

The whole thing is chilling, from the opening lines about checking citizenship records on domestic ferries, but reaches a peak with the story of a federal monitor for radioactive material on I-5 so sensitive that “the government now has the ability to detect radiation in a cat inside a car going by at 70 miles per hour. And wow at this world we live in, where we feel compelled to sniff, at random, inside the traffic coming out of Bellingham.”

Not all of us feel so compelled. But those in power evidently do, which should be more than a little frightening. The closer quote from San Juan County Councilman Kevin Ranker: “I think it’s fair to say many people up here have been left wondering just what kind of country it is they’re living in.”

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When information is locked away by government entities, the reasons sometimes have to do with legitimate reasons such as safety or privacy of private citizens. But a whole lot of the time, it has more to do with avoiding discomfort for someone in public employ.

That thought might be borne in mind in reading the fascinating story out today in the Idaho Statesman by Dan Popkey, which makes the case that what we thought we knew about convicted killer Claude Dallas’ escape in 1986 from an Idaho penitentiary was, in important ways, a fabrication. It isn’t conclusive, but it makes a strong case: “Prison officials faked the fence-cutting to cover up the fact Dallas outsmarted his keepers and simply walked out the front door with a group of visitors shortly before 8 p.m. on March 30, 1986.”

A good Sunday read, and worth considering alongside the question of why so much information gets withheld when and how it does.

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Idaho

We see them all around and visit them regularly; convenience stores are ubiquitous. But did you ever wonder who owns them?

The answer mostly has been too complicated to contemplate. A lot of them are still owned by individual shopkeepers; it’s one of the businesses not yet swept up into a handful of megachains. And yet there are some shifts.

So we read with interest today’s story about the takeover of 62 convenience/gas station outlets in the Portland and Vancouver area by Idaho’s Jackson Food Stores, based at Meridian. Jackson has been a successful and fast-growing operation mainly in southern Idaho, but gradually expanding elsewhere. The stores had been operated by Shell Oil Products, and entered into a deal with Jackson on their management.

So in a sense it’s not really a consolidation of business. But it may be another of those subtle threads linking the Northwest together.

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Idaho

Larry Craig

Larry Craig

This is a little odd, a news story – in The Hill, the capitol newspaper – that a politician who had said he would retire this term, didn’t file for the office. So how does that become news?

But the politician in question is Idaho Senator Larry Craig, and given his recent history, you can sort of understand.

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Idaho candidate filing, now done (save only for write-ins at the primary), turn up not a lot really remarkable – a fairly normal portion of seats left uncontested, a normal number of primary contests. And a good many familiar faces from past go-rounds.

The sheer number of candidates for the U.S. Senate, for the seat held by Republican Larry Craig, is 13 – suggesting the whole thing is a lot more competitive than it really looks to be. The conventional wisdom, which we won’t argue with, has it that Republican Jim Risch, the lieutenant governor, is odds-on favorite in primary and general; and if there’s a major upset, if for example there were a huge national Democratic tide or some such, then Democrat Larry LaRocco, who is a known quantity and has been running a long-term and energetic race, would have a shot. You have to wonder what motivates the other 11 – those being seven Republicans, two independents, one Libertarian and one Democrat – to do this. (We’ll acknowledge that the independent running under his new legal name of Pro-Life has more or less an implicit explanation.)

Democrats did this time field candidates for all three congressional seats on the ballot – in fact, they fielded two for each.

Of the 105 legislative seats, 34 are uncontested – those incumbents have a free ride (with the asterisk that a write-in at the primary could change that). Of those, nine are Democrats – a high portion of the total number of Democrats (26) in the legislature. Democrats are making out better with free passes than the Republicans are. A handful of additional seats, however, have primary contests featuring Republicans only.

Familiar names surface through the filings. In Canyon County, Democratic candidate (experienced through several runs at this point) Dan Romero is running against Senator Patti Anne Lodge. In District 16, a legislator from a couple of decades back, Republican Elizabeth Allan Hodge, makes a return run (in five-way Republican primary for an open seat now held by Democrat Les Bock, who’s running for the Senate). In Weiser, former state Democratic Chair Wayne Fuller runs for the Senate against Republican incumbent Monty Pearce. In Twin Falls County, Democrat Bill Chisholm (well, he’s running as a Democrat this time) is on the ballot again – is this somewhere around his tenth run for the legislature? Democrat Allen Anderson returns in Bannock County to take on Republican Ken Andrus for – we think – the fourth straight time, including one win and two losses. Over in Idaho Falls, Democrat John McGimpsey, who ran a strong campaign in 2006 against Republican Russ Matthews and came close to winning, is trying again.

Odds and ends to be checked on. Soon.

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Obama in Salem

Obama in Salem/Stapilus

Three Oregon stops for Illinois Senator Barack Obama today and another tomorrow, on what turned out to be his best campaign day in a while. At his first stop in Portland, he got to unveil a substantial endorsement, by New Mexico Governor and former candidate Bill Richardson. The most recent polling indicates a rebound from the Wright debacle, and new headlines indicate financial trouble for his opponent, New York Senator Hillary Clinton. At his appearances in Portland and Salem, he seemed relaxed and in a good mood; so, maybe for some reason.

The Portland event, near the Rose Quarter (which probably was the venue that should have been used there), was swamped with people. Your scribe wanted to catch the activity but (like some other people we encountered) passed on PDX in favor of Salem, where the crowds were smaller and were a close fit to the venue there, the national guard Armory Auditorium by the state fairgrounds, seating somewhat over 3,000 people. Inside, the space was set up somewhat like an oversized high school basketball gym, which had the virtue of giving nearly everyone a good view, and no great distance from the speaker.

A few observations from that scene:

The crowd was mixed, a thorough range of ages and other categories, not overwhelmingly young or old. Signs from outside were not allowed inside, limiting expressions by groups, but t-shirt signage indicated labor unions were well in evidence, to judge from SEIU shirts and red shirts proclaiming “You estoy con la union.”

Security was substantial (and there were plenty of uniforms around), but considering the nature of the event, not overbearing. Cameras and cell phones were allowed in, and were used heavily – seemingly one person in three or four had a camera, a cell or both (or a combination; iPhones were around too).

Scheduled for 1 p.m., the event started an hour late. Obama addressed that, apologizing but noting that the news media at Portland had considerable interest in the Richardson announcement. It seemed a plausible explanation.

A local campaign worker was first up, noting that a Salem Obama office would be opening shortly. Representative Earl Blumenauer did the introduction of Obama in Salem (as he had in Portland), declaring that Oregon could be the state that puts the candidate over the top with delegate votes. (Which theoretically could happen if enough superdelegates broke for him over the next couple of months.)

Obama’s talk was in two parts, about a half hour each. The first was a somewhat abridged version of his current stump speech, very much like the one he delivered in Portland, heavy on rundown of issues but certainly not lacking in applause lines. Which, in Salem as in Portland, got the intended response – despite the delay, the audience was plenty revved for response when the candidate took the riser (a small square area; he was speaking 360 degrees to people all around him). He pulled a strong response with lines on the economy, on veterans care, on energy policy and other matters, but the largest roars were reserved for his promises to withdraw troops from Iraq.

The second part was – in keeping with the “town hall” description of the event – a question and answer period, fielding seven or eight questions (depending on how you count). They covered a range, from immigration to North Korea to offshore jobs to race relations. None seemed to present Obama any difficulty. He sounded as if he was working his way carefully through (or maybe it was just artful delivery) a question from a Salem woman who said she had friends who were supporting Hillary Clinton – how should should she make the case for Obama instead? “Sp you need bullet points,” Obama mused. He wound up with the conclusion that Clinton, while capable and not far from him on many issues, doesn’t have a feel for transparent and interactive government and operates from top-down, meaning that many of the problems about how Washington functions would be left unsolved by her. “It’s not enough to change the political parties,” he concluded. “You have to change the culture.” That, he said, he would do.

He did enter into a line of thought we’ve not heard in his speeches before, and which sounded as if it could be expanded and used more widely. In describing his political beliefs, he said he adhered to a number of specific ideas, such as equality, broad participation in governing, upward mobility, and others. But these constituted goals rather than an ideological construction; he said he is more interested in pragmatism toward solving problems than he is operating within an ideology. That could prove an effective rebuttal to discussion later on of where he fits on a “liberal-conservative” scale – it could have the effect of lifting him above that.

No fainting spells were observed. The crowd did not seem raucous. But it did seem energized.

AND IN CORVALLIS A first-person account posted on Daily Kos from Corvallis, where Obama stopped in at the American Dream pizza place (which we can personally attest makes good pizza).

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Oregon

Rob McKenna

Rob McKenna

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna is making a notable suggestion: That Washington’s tort laws cost its state government far more than neighbors Oregon and Idaho. That is to say, in relative terms, not just “more than it should . . .”

In a lengthy interview with LegalNewsLine, the Republican attorney general said his state annually pays out ten-times as much in tort settlements than in Idaho, and six-times more than Oregon does.

“There are basically no boundaries or limits on claims that are brought against state taxpayers by a tort claimant,” said McKenna, adding that the state has paid out about $500 million in tort claims over the last 25 years.

“That is money that is not available to improve services such as foster care and transportation,” he said.

Additional financial strain, he said, is placed on the state by Washington’s doctrine of joint and several liability, where even if a co-defendant is found to be as little as 1 percent at fault, a co-defendant can nonetheless be held 100 percent liable for an award if the other co-defendant is found to be an empty pocket.

We’re not in the rank of those blaming tort laws for the full range of social ills, but if the laws vary widely state to state, it doesn’t take much imagination to see where that will lead an inventor litigator.

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Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

And they said the Oregon presidential primary wasn’t gonna matter. Well, who knows: It still might not, being about a couple of months away yet. But no presidential candidate in this year’s race has been damaged by thinking ahead and presuming nothing.

So of a sudden, the invasion begins. Friday and into Saturday morning Obamamania hits, with candidate events in Portland, Salem, Eugene and (Saturday morning) in Medford. And we are told that will not be all. And if this contest still is seriously on in late May, there will be much more. On May 13, West Virginia holds a primary and Nebraska an advisory-only event; the next event will be the May 20 primaries in Oregon and Kentucky. That would put those two states alone in the spotlight for a full week.

Clinton will be in Oregon too, of course, though those appearances haven’t been announced. The campaign did however name an Oregon state coordinator today, Clay Haynes, who has been a deputy national field director. (In the e-mail announcement, there was reiteration of support from Governor Ted Kulongoski and Representative Darlene Hooley.) And Kulongoski made a reference to an upcoming visit: “I look forward to traveling with her across the state . . .”

Oregon may wind up doing just fine with its May 20 primary date.

PROJECTIONS Okay, so who wins Oregon? As matters sit now, Obama, clearly. As in a good many other states, he has had a large and really grass-roots network pulling for him for many months, and now it will be activated. Looking at the race in Oregon today, it doesn’t seem likely to be close. (You might also consider that its two main neighbors, Washington and Idaho, also were home to decisive Obama wins.)

Famous last words, of course . . .

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Oregon

We at Ridenbaugh Press are registered (in Oregon you do register by preference) as independents, and we have a soft spot for independent, non-aligned candidates. And some frustration, because almost never do these candidacies amount to much more than spots on a ballot and time-absorbers at the occasional debates where they’re allowed to participate. Nearly all end with vote percentages in the one to two percent range. Few of these candidates seem to take their races much more seriously, for that matter, than most of the voters do.

Rex Rammell, by opting out of the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate from Idaho and running as an independent instead – as he announced this week – has thrown himself into that category. It is true that he was almost certainly headed for a big loss in the Republican primary to Jim Risch, the lieutenant governor who is overwhelmingly the best known, most organized and best finances of the Republicans running for Senate. And it is true that by running as an independent, Rammell’s candidacy stays alive until November. But his chances of ultimate election are no better. As an independent, he will lack the built-in organization, support and finance networks political parties provide, and those are no small advantages.

Reports on his announcement press conference say he offers three lines of argument for why he can win: “Jim Risch is too old to become a U.S. senator. You don’t become a U.S. senator in the sunset of your career . . . I am a member of the LDS church, which is a significant portion of the electorate.” And his (now former) ownership of an elk hunting ranch in eastern Idaho, which has been the subject of much of his involvement in politics so far and over which he and Risch came to battle while Risch was serving as governor in 2006.

Let’s take these in reverse order.

Ask most Idahoans what they think about elk ranches – shooting galleries, virtually – and you probably won’t get a lot of positive response. Remember the issue that brought Rammell and Risch to clash: Elk escaped from Rammell’s ranch and, because state officials were concerned for the health of wild elk, Risch ordered that they could be shot if necessary. Probably most Idahoans would side with Risch on that one.

Second, the fact that Rammell is LDS and Risch is not (he is a member of the Roman Catholic church) doesn’t really count for much. There’s a ream of election research showing that LDS voters don’t reflexively vote for fellow Mormons, though they do overwhelmingly vote for candidates who they think are closely aligned with their church’s stances. Risch has just that alignment; Mormon eastern Idaho has been one of his strongest areas around the state for years, and he is closely allied with many leading church members. Rammell cannot easily cut into that.

Third . . . has Rammell checked the age of the candidate most Idahoans probably will support for president this year – Republican John McCain? He’s got a few years on Risch. Of course, Rammell’s implicit point is that electing a younger person to the Senate means they could have more time to develop seniority, maybe chair a committee or the like, and that much is true. But we all elect U.S. senators to terms of six years, not 20 or 30. Senators can have considerable impact without lots of years in place (there’s a senator from Illinois making that point these days), and a fair number of really veteran senators over the years have amounted to little more than deadwood for much of their tenure. And the idea that you’re too old to serve in the Senate once you’ve passed the 45 or 50 year mark seems, on its face, a little perverse.

Rammell is going to need more ammunition if he plans to rise above the usual run of independent candidacies for the Senate.

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Today’s Peter Callaghan (Tacoma News Tribune) column has much the clearest, plainest description of the new Washington primary system – which we’ve called “Cajun” but is here referred to, as it probably should be, as “top two” – we’ve seen. Which will go into effect this year.

He likes it, by the way.

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Barack Obama

Barack Obama

The Barack Obama show has already come to Idaho (just ahead of Super Tuesday) and Washington (about a week later); now, Friday, it comes to Oregon.

Portland and Eugene events were announced late last night. New today is that by the noon hour (not sure how much earlier), all of the (free) tickets to the Portland event, at the Memorial Coliseum, were already gone, and a waiting list has been established.

The Eugene event Friday night, at the University of Oregon, doesn’t require tickets and will be first-come, first-serve. You have to wonder what the lines will look like. (BTW, McArthur Court at Eugene holds just 9,100 people; will the venue be changed by Friday?)

ALSO There is also – though this didn’t seem to be widely noted in the initial announcement – an additional event at Salem, at 1 p.m.

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Sean Cruz, the Portland Democratic Senate candidate (and aide to Senator Avel Gordly, who is vacating the seat he’s seeking), has been making the point in recent emails that early-early endorsements by Portland political leaders has in some cases had the effect of discouraging fresh candidacies.

Today he cites a Portland Tribune anecdote suggesting just that. In it, veteran activist Jefferson Smith (well known from his work leading the Bus Project) appeared on an issue before the Portland City Council. This year, Smith has filed (as a Democrat) for the House seat being vacated by Speaker Jeff Merkley; he is the only candidate to file for it, which makes him about as good as elected. The Tribune writes,

Before he could speak, Commissioner Randy Leonard pointed out that no other candidates had filed in the race, meaning that Smith is a shoo-in.

“I want to take credit for that, because I endorsed you early on,” Leonard said, modestly.

Although Smith could have pointed out his years of political organizing, activism and networking, he instead replied, “I agree.”

Cruz comments: “So much for democracy and inclusion, and that commitment to diversity that one often hears from City Hall and the County Commission. One side of the mouth bespeaks grass roots, the other bald cronyism.”

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Looks like Washington will be heading away from primary elections – from party nominations as we have known them – with the new U.S. Supreme Court decision in Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, which overturned the 9th Circuit Court decision holding the “top two” method of winnowing candidates was facially unconstitutional.

“Because I–872 does not on its face impose a severe burden on political parties’ associational rights, and because respondents’ arguments to the contrary rest on factual assumptions about voter confusion that can be evaluated only in the context of an as-applied challenge, we reverse,” the decision (delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas) reads. That presumably enacts (in effect) Initiative 872, passed in 2004 with about 60% support.

This approach (sometimes called “Cajun” because it was first widely used in Louisiana) doesn’t really include at all a process for a political party to nominate a candidate. Instead, all candidates for a given office appear on the primary election ballot, and the top two winner, whoever they are and whatever party they belong to or don’t, move on to the general election in November. That may mean two Democrats or two Republicans.

There may be some real implications in other states, notably in Idaho, where a number of Republicans have been pressing for a more-closed primary system. Closed-primary advocates have relied (understandably) on a 2000 Supreme Court decision in California Democratic Party v. Jones, where the court described nomination elections as “the crucial juncture at which the appeal to common principles may be translated into concerted action, and hence to political power in the community,” and specifically upheld the “freedom to exclude” as part of the freedom of association.

The new decision doesn’t structure itself as a reversal of Jones, but rather a more fine-grained explication of it: “In Jones we noted that a nonpartisan blanket primary, where the top two vote-getters proceed to the general election regardless of their party, was a less restrictive alternative to California’s system because such a primary does not nominate candidates. . . . Petitioners are correct that we assumed that the nonpartisan primary we described in Jones would be constitutional. But that is not dispositive here because we had no occasion in Jones to determine whether a primary system that indicates
each candidate’s party preference on the ballot, in effect, chooses the parties’ nominees. That question is now squarely before us.”

However: “unlike the California primary, the I–872 primary does not, by its terms, choose parties’ nominees. The essence of nomination—the choice of a party representative—does not occur under I–872. The law never refers to the candidates as nominees of any party, nor does it treat them as such. To the contrary, the election regulations specifically provide that the primary ‘does not serve to determine the nominees of a political party but serves to winnow the number of candidates to a final list of two for the general election.’” In other words, it treats partisan elections as if they were non-partisan.

In a way, the court noted, it frees up the parties: “Whether parties nominate their own candidates outside the state-run primary is simply irrelevant. In fact, parties may now nominate candidates by whatever mechanism they choose because I–872 repealed Washington’s prior regulations governing party nominations.”

It also dismisses the argument that voters might be confused by the process.

Now Washington has a primary system formally ensconced in the law and high-court approved, and Secretary of State Sam Reed says it will go into effect with this election, in August.

It changes the calculus. Our guess is that it could move Washington politics toward the center; but we’ll all start to get sense of that in a period of mere months.

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