Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Thoughts on 15%

Over at Blue Mass. Group, they're having a discussion about yesterday's Scot Lehigh column predicting doom if Chris Gabrieli does not get the required 15% of the delegates at next weekend's Democratic State Convention to get on the primary ballot. The argument is that Gabrieli has met some standard of viability and should not be kept off the ballot in the interest of giving people choices at the polls. Lehigh quotes heavily from 1990 Gubernatorial candidate John Silber, a longtime foe of the 15% cutoff (more on him later). Still, Lehigh's argument is partly that the cutoff keeps out credible candidates, despite the fact that all the candidates he names did, in fact, end up on the ballot. The only example I could find of a candidate who failed to get 15% despite being subjectively viable is former Lieutenant Governor Tommy O'Neil, who missed the bar in 1982, the first year the rule was in place. I'm not sure that the 15% rule is the best way to weed out marginal candidates, but if the threshold was so difficult, I'd have thought there would be more examples of people who couldn't clear it. Of course, this convention is the first one since the party tightened the requirements even further (forcing candidates to clear the threshold on the first ballot, and reducing the number of delegates elected at caucus).

Personally, I think that any delegate who was elected at the caucuses as part of a slate of delegates who committed themselves to a candidate should vote for the candidate they promised to vote for. I don't care if that candidate is Deval Patrick, Tom Reilly, or Joe Kennedy. To do otherwise would be dishonest. Since Gabrieli did not participate in the caucuses, he will miss out on these votes and I don't see anything wrong with that. If Gabrieli wants to tell uncommitted and ex officio delegates to vote for him because he's doing well in the polls, that's fine. If he's telling committed delegates to vote for him on the first ballot so he can get access, and another candidate on the second ballot, then he's basically telling these delegates that the promises they made at the caucuses are less important than his candidacy. I think that's why some of the delegates are turned off.

For what it's worth, Lehigh wrote the exact same column four years ago, when Robert Reich was the candidate in danger of missing the ballot. John Silber was again Lehigh's go-to-guy for why the rule is no good. Reich did get his 15% at the convention, but not much more. I suspect the same thing will happen to Gabrieli next weekend. As a contrast, though, the Reich people worked the caucuses pretty hard and got his 15% largely from those delegates.

Now, as far as Silber goes, of course he doesn't like the 15% rule. Back in 1990, he entered the gubernatorial race late against Frank Bellotti and Evelyn Murphy. There was a question of whether or not he'd be able to get 15% of the delegates at the convention, so he spent $200,000 on TV ads in April and got his poll numbers up to prove that he deserved a place on the ballot. Sound familiar? Now, I didn't live in Massachusetts in 1990, but from what I've been told, a deal was struck at the Democratic convention that year, and some of Bellotti's delegates voted for Silber to make sure he reached the threshold. Silber ended up beating Bellotti 54 to 44 in the primary, and went on to lose the general election to Bill Weld, which started the succession of "dilettante Republican governors" who have either gotten bored with Massachusetts or gotten elbowed out. I'm not sure what would have happened if that deal had not been made and Silber failed to make the ballot, but Bellotti would likely have won the Democratic primary. Would he have beaten Weld in the general? I'm not sure, but as I said on Blue Mass. Group, he probably wouldn't have cussed out Natalie Jacobsen.