KPBS Midday Edition transcript: open primaries, 52nd Congressional District

January 6, 2012

Click here to listen to the discussion. Selected portion begins in minute 37.

ST. JOHN: Let’s talk about a couple of change this is year that could mean voters are able to break the partisan deadlock that’s able to break the stalemates that we’re in. 2011 was a censusing year, and it changed the way political boundary lines are drawn to reflect the changing population. You may have noticed that for many years, the congressional races in San Diego have been very predictable. Voters could pick a candidate, but there was no suspense about which party would win. Michael, how has that changed this year? Are there any districts now in doubt?

SMOLENS: Well, there’s some more competition. Not entirely because of redistricting, but the one district that the redistricting process did affect is Brian Bilbray’s new district, which moved him from a North County, central based district to central San Diego. It till has a Republican favor in terms of the be registration. He’s also got a couple pretty well known Democrats running against him in Lori SaldaÒa, and Scott Peters, and current chairman of the port district.

ST. JOHN: But is that the only district that has really changed? Become more open?

SMOLENS: Well, are in the county. The other really interesting one has to do with the one we haven’t mentioned, which is the open primary which sends the top two candidates to the primary regardless of party.

ST. JOHN: Okay.

SMOLENS: That’s Bob Filner’s. It’s a very heavy democratic district. We’ll see this unique situation where they will battle it out in June, then go onto the same battle in November because they will be the top two vote getters, regardless of party. Under the current system, they would knock each other silly like Vargas did with Maria Salas?

ST. JOHN: That’s right.

SMOLENS: In the state Senate district, and then waltz to an election in a heavily democratic district against a Republican. So that’s kind of a unique situation. And I wonder if people really thought of that going down the line that we will have some repeat elections like that in more heavily democratic and Republican districts. What you have in San Diego is the result of those two changes, the redistricting, which was done by — allegedly, or set up an independent citizens’ panel rather than the politicians in Sacramento, and this open primary. So you’ll see those effects potentially come to play in those two districts.

MAUREEN ST. JOHN: And for the voters who really aren’t quite clear about the open primary and why it was passed and how it’ll affect them, can you explain?

SMOLENS: Well, I don’t know, that and redistricting are very confusing and tend to be things with long-term big conventions. There’s always been this notion that an open primary allows people to crossover, and ultimately you get a more moderate candidate. In the scenario I mentioned when you have a Vargas and Ducheny, the Republicans, when those two are against each other in the runoff, that Republicans would have to choose between them rather than go to a very weak Republican candidate. And the one they deem more acceptable may be the more moderate of the we’ll see what happens. That’s the theory. The legislature and the California congressional delegation will be even more strongly democratic because of largely redistricting.

ROLLAND: The easiest way to explain it without going through a lot of —

ST. JOHN: Oh, good.

ROLLAND: Well, just that the candidates now will have to appeal to more moderate voters. I mean, and that’s the bottom line. And so the hope is that it does ease some gridlock in Sacramento so you don’t have the extremes where you have maybe people from all along the political spectrum in the state legislature or in Congress or whatever that you have to in the general election, if you have two Democrats going at, you also have to appeal to decline to more moderate voters or Republican voters.

ST. JOHN: And can anybody, whatever party they’re registered as, vote for any candidate?

ROLLAND: Yes. You don’t even have to identify. I don’t believe you have to identify yourself through party affiliations.

ST. JOHN: So nobody can win, even if one gets 70%, and the other gets 20%, they still have to face-off?

SMOLENS: It’s not like a City Council election where one wins in the June election, and it automatically goes to a runoff.

LEWIS: You have the situation where Brian Bilbray, the incumbent has a much different district. It stretches into the peninsula, and Point Loma and, on B, into the northern parts of the city. So you have a much more — although I still think it’s slightly Republican.


ROLLAND: 3%, I think.

LEWIS: But much less than it was before. So now you have Scott Peters and Lori Saldada, and she was just endorsed by Donna Frye. There’s no love lost between Donna Frye and Scott Peters. But now you have Peters really hoping he gets that final election with Bilbray and forces a very interesting standoff. I think it’ll be one of the most interesting political contests to watch.

ST. JOHN: Let’s talk about that more after the break. It is definitely one of the more interesting, and one of the more uncertain races, because either a Republican or a Democrat could win.

ST. JOHN: You’re listening to KPBS’s Midday Edition Roundtable. I’m Alison St. John. And here at the Roundtable we have Michael Smolens, political and government editor at UT San Diego. David Rolland, editor of San Diego City beat, and Scott Lewis, CEO of And we’re talking about issues connected to the election year coming in. As a result of redistricting that happened last year, the congressional district boundaries have been redrawn, which means not all the districts are as certain as they used to be. A bit of an attack on gerrymandering. So let’s start with you, David, and can you tell us where you think as a result of redistricting, any of the congressional districts will change? Will it change the balance of power of our congressional representation in Washington?

ROLLAND: Well, just as we’ve been talking when we were talking about the open primary, we touched on the Brian Bilbray district, and that one definitely is the one that’s affected by the redistricting. The if you look at the five local congressional districts, three of them are not really in play. Dunk an hunter junior, Darryl Issa, Susan Davis, they’re all safe. The two that are in play as Michael mentioned, Bob Filner is running for mayor. That leaves his district wide open. So there are a couple — it will be a Democrat that’s elected to that district.

ST. JOHN: So to that extent, it hasn’t changed things?

ROLLAND: Right. So redistricting isn’t what is putting that one in play.

ST. JOHN: Okay.

ROLLAND: That will be Juan Vargas versus Denise Ducheny, who is a former state legislator. The people I talk to think that Vargas, it’ll still be a bit of a cakewalk for him. He has a better operation going in that district, he’s better known, and can he probably — unless something going terribly wrong, be elected. As Scott said, really the interesting race is Brian Bilbray’s district. And as we’ve been mentions, it’s because redistricting narrowed the registration gap. The Republicans had, I believe, about a 9% registration edge in that district. Now it’s been cut to about 3%, I believe. So that one. And I don’t know if Brian Bilbray in that district was really the had the strongest strangle hold on that district to begin with. So now he’s got a real battle on his hands. And it’s interesting because — and as we’ve been talking about with the open primary, you’ve got two Democrats and Brian Bilbray, the Republican who are going to be on the June ballot. You’ve got Lori SaldaÒa, herself a former state legislator. And Scott Peters, former president of the City Council and current member of the port board of commissioners.

ST. JOHN: So do you think that Bilbray will change his political stripes now that he’s up against two more well known Democrats? Michael?

SMOLENS: Well, one of the things — he spoke to a tea party gathering and certainly gave no indication there. He was coming from the hard right on a number of issues, including immigration, which is of course is his signature issue. He also — there are some other candidates, and there’s one candidate that has sort of a tea party kind of flavor. At least he’s trying to, you know, kind of bill himself as that. And his stances have drawn some appreciation from the tea party folks, who are not a unified block, and so forth. So Bilbray does have to keep an eye on his right.

ROLLAND: I believe his name is John stall.

SMOLENS: Thank you. And there’s another physician, a Wayn Iverson who’s talking about running as a Republican. But I think Brian Bilbray is largely coming from where he’s come from, and figures that’s the way certainly into the runoff election — or the general election, I should say.

ST. JOHN: We’ve got Lori Saldada. Of what are her strengths as a candidate here?

SMOLENS: Well, I think you’ve got the potential, at least, at this stage, it’s almost looking like you’ve got Bilbray, the Republican conservative, Saldada, more the liberal. She’s sort of modeling a — some of her discussion on the whole occupy, the 90% and 1%, and Scott Peters a little bit more of the establishment Democrat. He’s the head of the port district, which is sort of always viewed as a very business-like operation. I don’t know that it’s an exact fit of he’s the moderate, she’s the left, he’s the right. But there is that sort of that play in the dynamic.

ST. JOHN: Scott Peters, one of the reasons he was the council president was his ability to hear both ideas. Do you think that will be an advantage for him in this race?

ROLLAND: The last race he ran was for city attorney, and he got walloped. And what dogged him in that one was the City of San Diego’s financial problems.

LEWIS: I think this cuts both ways with the congressional race in the sense that, yes, this is like toilet paper stuck to his shoe. He’s going to have to get it off at some point. But does this race come down to fiduciary issues at a city like that? It possibly could because the nation is so focused on the deficit. And you could just get hammered. This guy doesn’t care about fiscal balance, etc. On the other hand when you’re running on Congress, there’s so much red — blue, it doesn’t really matter. It’s, like, I’d rather have this guy than the red guy. And that’s just it. And regardless of his warts or whatever. So Lori SaldaÒa is a very free spirit, very 90% thing. So I don’t know if she can gain traction or not. But Donna Frye endorsed her because of the frustration she had with Scott Peters of managing that crisis. So I don’t know how big a deal it’ll be, but it was a big deal in his last race.

ROLLAND: She is ready for it to come up. And I ask him about it in an interview I did with him, and his answer was, mistakes were made. Yes, we made mistakes. But mistakes were made way before I got there. And he said what I did, and what my colleagues did is we perpetuated those mistakes for a little while until blew up, and then we fixed the problem. That’s what his response is going to be. But I think it’s much larger than city finances, and voters will key in on that. I think that will be talked about. The city’s finances will be talked about, and then I think they’ll be disposed of. Because this really is the battle of the Republicans versus the Democrats in Washington. That’s where this battle is. And this is a chance, you know, the Republicans control the house right now. Democrats want control of that house back. They see this as a vulnerable Republican district, and they’re going to — they’re already bringing people in from Washington to help Scott Peters run this campaign. And so I really think it’s going to come down to who has a better — the first battle will be Peters versus Saldada. And I think —

ST. JOHN: But it’s an open primary.

ROLLAND: Right, but yes.

ST. JOHN: But it’s the top two of which party.

ROLLAND: You expect the incumbent to be the No.†1 or No.†2 vote getter. I believe it’ll come down to Bilbray versus Peters, personally, because I think a lot of Democrats will reason that — they’ll see that Peters has a better shot at beating Bilbray than Saldada.

ST. JOHN: Michael, do you think the open primary business will help Peters? Being a moderate, there may be people in that district, possibly a lot of independents registered in San Diego who may decide, well, let’s give him a chance?

SMOLENS: I think. But on a couple things, correct me if I’m wrong, independents can participate in the primary, they just have to ask for a Republican or democratic ballot. Do I have that right?

ST. JOHN: Well, currently. But under the new law, I don’t think so.

SMOLENS: What I was getting at, at any rate, I think he would attract more independents than perhaps Lori SaldaÒa. Upon but the larger point is, despite the open primary, this district race has more the makings of a traditional race where you’re going to end up with a Democrat and a Republican. And I don’t see the openness of it having as great of an effect.

ST. JOHN: But do you think because it’s an open primary, there’ll be a lot more money floating around before the June primary because the people have to appeal to both sides?

SMOLENS: Oh, that’s been all sorts of speculation on it. The two races were the open primary, and that’s key, we mentioned Vargas and Ducheny, and there will be a lot of strategy, about there’s the notion that those two are going to end up in November against each other, again, to what degree they’re going to spend a lot of money, are they going to manage it in a different way they might normally? If it were under the current system, this is the win or take all.

ST. JOHN: Yes, they spend is it all before June.

SMOLENS: And in the Vargas Senate race, after he beat Salas, that was a low-key race. You mentioned earlier, what does this mean in terms of spending money? Both aspects of redistricting and the top two primary come into play, is the district in west LA and the valley, where Howard Berman got put in the same district as Brad Sherman, two heavy-weight members of Congress. They’re going to be duke particular out from now till November. And people are expecting that to break all sorts of records. Not only did the redistricting force them in the same district, but also now that they have to face each other in more or less a runoff in November.

ST. JOHN: Scott, does this bother you that there’s so much money likely to be swilling around this election year? It seems like the laws about who can contribute have gotten a good deal looser, right? And now we’ve got this open primary where people are going to have to spend more before that June†1st because if they want to run in November, they’re going to have to win in June. Will we see an onslaught of ads we’ve never seen before before the June primary?

LEWIS: I think media people should always disclose that they benefit a lot from this system, often. They get a lot of this advertising money. I’m just saying, like, look, I don’t know. I’m uncomfortable with how much money has been freed up in the process. And all of it they can pour into those packs and what not. On the other hand, look at Iowa. Rick Santorum almost won the Iowa caucus, and he had, I think, the lowest per vote total of the major candidates there, as far as money spent. I think there’s still room for people to outdo that. And we’ll see. I think that’s actually a major issue in the lorry SaldaÒa versus Scott Peters case. Here’s Peters with a lot of personal wealth. Will he be able to as I that and get a lot from Washington? Will she be able to get the grass-roots spot? I don’t know.

ST. JOHN: Where is she going to get her support from if Scott Peters has more of the party support?

LEWIS: I don’t know for a fact he does. I would assume they’re looking at him as a more potentially —

ST. JOHN: So we don’t know for sure yet where the democratic money is going to land.

LEWIS: Right. The thing is, I don’t know how you control that. I really am — finding the arguments about your ability to spend your money, how you’d like, pretty compelling. And I don’t know how you stop people from spending money to support the candidates that they do. I think we need to be open and honest and transparent about where that money is coming from, but I don’t know how you don’t severely restrict personal freedoms when you try to control that. Maybe somebody can have an idea. Maybe you can publicly finance it, but it’s a difficult issue.

ST. JOHN: 30 seconds.

SMOLENS: For the record, I checked my cheat sheet. Independents and ask for a part San ballot, but you have to ask. So independents could always vote for a Scott Peters or Lori SaldaÒa, but it will be easier now for them to do that.

ST. JOHN: Great. We’ve got a few months. I hope we can gather you three gentlemen together again. Of Scott Lewis of, thanks for being here. David Rolland, editor of San Diego City beat, great to have you here. And Michael Smolens, political and government editor of UT San Diego. Thank you.



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