California's redistricting reforms of 2008 and 2010 took crucial boundary drawing power away from political parties and gave it to an independent commission. The "top two" initiative of 2010 snatched the primaries away from the parties by awarding the November runoff spots to whichever candidates finished first and second in each primary race, regardless of political affiliation. Those combined reforms, at play for the first time in the June 5 primary, have created districts in which incumbents vie against each other for voter support, as Southern Californians are seeing in the 30th Congressional District matchup featuring longtime House veterans Howard Berman and Brad Sherman and in the 44th District race that pits three-term Congresswoman Laura Richardson against first-termer Janice Hahn — or, in the case of the new 26th District that covers most of Ventura County, a wide-open seat with no incumbent at all.
Another result is that some candidates who are not affiliated with a party — candidates who had no shot in a partisan primary system — may now become viable. An independent candidate like Linda Parks, a Ventura County supervisor running for Congress in the 26th, no longer must align with the Republicans, the Democrats or some other party to get any notice in the primary race. Under the top-two system, Parks can go head to head with everyone else in June and have a realistic chance of winning a spot in the November general election.
The Ventura seat may, in fact, be the perfect example of what reformers had in mind. The area formerly represented by moderate Republican Elton Gallegly now leans slightly Democratic, but with a strong contingent of independents, many of whom are, like Parks, former Republicans. A more partisan Republican could still take it, even an extremely conservative one like state Sen. Tony Strickland. A Democrat could take it, even a very liberal one like Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, whose current district takes in much more left-leaning areas farther down the coast (actually farther east, given Southern California's south-facing beaches) such as Malibu and Santa Monica. Or more niche-oriented Democrats, like candidates David Cruz Thayne or Jess Herrera.
Or an independent, like Parks.
If Parks were unqualified for the job, the novelty of having a nonaligned candidate would wear thin very quickly. But she is in fact very qualified. She has served ably as a county supervisor, reflecting — and putting into action — Ventura County's particular brand of open-space-preserving environmentalism, while bringing a more traditionally conservative hand to spending policy.
She would bring a breath of fresh air to the new district. The Times endorses Linda Parks for the 26th Congressional District.
This endorsement is not made blindly. Parks, if elected, will have more than the usual share of freshman challenges. California may have embraced a new nonpartisan approach to congressional elections, but that will mean little on Capitol Hill, where a member of Congress and pretty much anyone else is generally a Republican or a Democrat — or invisible. No matter how many Ventura County voters back Parks, and no matter how enthusiastically, she will need to caucus with one side or the other if she is to land a committee assignment or introduce a bill.
Parks, for her part, declines to say whether she would caucus with Republicans or Democrats; she insists she can forge bipartisan consensus and that, in the hyperpartisan atmosphere of Washington, party leaders will court her and thus imbue her with compromise-brokering power. This is either touchingly naive or cynical. Or perhaps a little of both. Voters would have every reason to be wary if her political resume showed evidence of betrayal or dishonesty. It does not.
But is she merely a Republican posing as an independent? Parks was a registered Republican until shortly before the candidate filing deadline in March. And she was a Democrat before that. Her voting and policy records as a nonpartisan county supervisor show that she blazes her own trail — but often brings liberals and conservatives along with her.
Democratic Party leaders, of course, see members of Congress as votes for or against their team, and this seat is crucial to their quest to take back the House, if not this year, then two or four years into the future. They have resisted redistricting reform, but it presented them a surprise gift when the new lines resulted in the retirement of both Gallegly and David Dreier, who represents the current 26th District, covering portions of the San Gabriel Valley and foothill communities. Losing their district to an independent would be almost as bad as leaving it with Republicans.
But California voters — Democrats, Republicans and independents alike — have time and again demonstrated their disgust with Washington's partisan logjam and with party domination of the nation's agenda. In electing Parks, they would send to the Capitol very physical evidence that they are rejecting political business as usual.
The object of California's nonpartisan reforms should not be to elect more moderates; redistricting reform and the top-two primary system are often touted in the mistaken belief that what the state and the nation need is to split the difference between the left and the right. Rather than centrism, the goal should be pragmatism. Voters should demand elected officials who can hold firm to their core beliefs while still crossing the aisle to get things done. Former California lawmakers John Burton and Jim Brulte, and senators like Edward Kennedy and Richard Lugar — who was voted out after more 35 years this week — come to mind. They weren't lukewarm or centrist in their politics, but they knew how to close a deal that would benefit their constituents.
Today's partisans are too bullheaded or too afraid to broker deals. They need some shaking up. Parks may be just the person to do the shaking.