June 14, 2005

Primary Day, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Electoral System

Hello, friends! Happy Flag Day!

Today, for those who missed it, Virginia had its political primaries. (And judging by the turnout statistics, odds are you did miss it.) I voted in the Democratic primary. In a rarity for Virginia, both party primaries were on the same day this year. (And in case you're wondering why Virginia is holding elections this year, it's part of our state's brilliant plan to guarantee that as few people as possible participate. Allegedly, there's some other rationale, but I'm not buying it.)

This year, the Democrats had a grand total of one contested statewide primary, for lieutenant governor. (Near as I can tell, apart from presiding over the State Senate, the lieutenant governor has no responsibilities. He or she can spend four years doing the Post crossword and sipping sweet tea with little to no effect on the functioning of the state. Naturally, my new aspiration is to become lieutenant governor.) The four Dems running were political veteran Leslie Byrne, fresh-faced Del. "Chap" Peterson, Richmond-area Del. Viola Baskerville, and coal-country Sen. Philip Puckett.

I first became familiar with these names when I was called by a pollster -- at 8 AM on a Saturday no less! -- and asked whom I intended to support. I replied with the only one I'd heard of, Byrne, and went back to sleep. In the subsequent weeks, however, I resolved to actually figure out something about these fine folks and make an informed decision. I do this because I'm an incredible dork.

Quickly I realized that there was no way I'd be voting for Baskerville, whose campaign seemed to be based around the old Carol Moseley-Braun theme, "I'm a black woman!" Nor would I be voting for Puckett, despite his backing by my state senator, because his campaign was based on the theme of bringing "geographical and ideological balance" to the ticket. I'm still not sure what he meant by this, but based on his issue positions, I think he meant that the best way to elect a Democrat for governor was to nominate a Republican to run with him.

This left me with Byrne and Petersen. And both candidates gave me a lot to think about.

Byrne has a ton of experience (a fact she emphasized at great length in her campaign... more on this anon), something I've always looked for in a candidate. She used to be my congresswoman for a little while, before Tom Davis beat her, and later became a state senator, before the Republicans redistricted her into oblivion. Her issue positions line up with mine well. And she's a results-oriented poltician, not a grandstander ("a work horse, not a show pony" as they say in some part oft he country I'm not from).

On the other hand... she is pretty liberal, which is a tough sell in Virginia. Women face an uphill battle statewide (ask poor Mary Sue Terry, whose 20-point summertime lead for governor somehow melted into a shellacking on Election Day at the hands of Gomer Allen), and liberal women face an even more uphill battle. (And how would Tim Kaine react? Would he embrace a Byrne candidacy, or would he treat it as a millstone around his relentlessly center-seeking neck?) Also, Byrne is a pretty abrasive personality, which doesn't necessarily play in genteel Virginia, especially if you're female. Also, her constant harping on "experience" made me start to wonder if her campaign boiled down to "It's my turn," which gave the world Bob Dole '96.

On the other hand, Petersen's a more moderate Democrat, more in line with Virginia's political views. He raised the most money by far, and traveled tirelessly around the state to promote himself; clearly, he's an energetic campaigner. His focus on "bread-and-butter" economic issues combined with a willingness to challenge Democratic orthodoxy on social issues, as well as his youth and vigor, make him an appealing choice.

And yet... Petersen's only been in the House of Delegates for four years, and in the Fairfax City Council for four years before that. That's the sum total of his political experience. For a relative neophyte to run for the #2 office at age 37 smacks of line-jumping, particularly since he left a valuable swing district in the House of Delegates up for grabs. His positions felt a little flimsy, more "this is how I can stand out in the crowd" than "I'm voting my conscience." I couldn't help wondering whether ol' Chap believes in serving anything higher than his own ambition. (Also, a grown man who chooses to call himself "Chap" makes me uneasy.)

Eventually, I realized what this all reminded me of. It's Kerry vs. Edwards all over again! The liberal-leaning familiar face vs. the fast-track younger moderate. As with Kerry vs. Edwards, I couldn't shake the feeling that Chap was more electable, but I personally preferred Byrne. But fresh off the 2004 loss, I wondered: what's the "right" way to vote? Do you vote for the person you like the most? Or do you vote for the person you think gives you the best shot at winning?

While I pondered, Leslie Byrne kept contacting me. Like a persistent suitor, Leslie and her dedicated team did there best to make sure that not one second passed during the day when I didn't have her on my mind. By my count, I received seven direct mailings and ten phone calls from Team Byrne in the space of about a month. Total number of contacts from Baskerville, Puckett, and Chap combined: zero. Leslie really, really, really wanted my vote. Okay. Got it. (I couldn't help wondering if her money wouldn't be better spent lobbying more than one person, but what the heck? It's nice to feel wanted.)

So I went in to do my patriotic duty. I stared at the big computer screen with the names scrunched up in the upper-left corner. I started to go for Byrne. Then I went for Petersen. Then I paused, thought about it, and went for Byrne. When push comes to shove, I vote for the person I want to win. I received my "I VOTED" sticker and walked out into the lobby.

There a pleasant-looking older man, who seemed to blend into the background, said, "Excuse me, sir. Did you just vote in there?"

I started to fire back some smart remark about how no, I'd popped into the utility closet to pop a smoke, but the man seemed too nice for a sarcastic remark. Probably an exit pollster, I figured. I'd never been exit-polled before. could be fun.

"Yes, sir. I did."

"Did you vote in the Republican primary, or the Democratic primary?"


"Oh." He sagged a bit. "I guess you wouldn't be interested in helping me out then. We're desperate for people to help with the Republican campaign this year."

"Yeah, don't think I'd be able to help out there. But hey, better luck with the next guy."

"We have our meager little table out there." He pointed; I squinted. I saw the corner of a table behind a staircase. "We've been fitfully manning it all day."

"Boy, did you pick the wrong precinct." I live in one of the most Democratic precincts in a Democratic county. The poor guy must really have drawn the short straw at Republican HQ.

"I've been trying to keep it covered, while staying inside as much as possible." He waved a hand around the air-conditioned lobby. It was a brutal day today, 90-plus temperatures with 90-plus humidity. Anyone who would spend a whole day in a steam bath stumping for Republicans in a staunchly Democratic precinct must be awfully dedicated.

"Tough day to be out here. I've got to tip my cap." I started toward the door.

"Hey, good luck with the election. I have a lot of respect for anyone who shows up for these primaries, whatever party. Only the best voters came out today. You've really got to care."

I smiled. "Well, good luck to you too, sir. You've earned it."

You know, amid all the hype and the shouting and the bitter partisanship and the talk-show bloviating, it's good to have a reminder that at its core, the political sytem is driven by nice, ordinary people who really care. Like the man in the lobby. Like me, too, I guess. It seems foolhardy to feel a huge surge in optimism about the political system as a result of one pleasant conversation with someone on the other side (especially when there are so many stories, like the AIPAC business, to make you sick to your stomach about the whole deal), but it's also nice to remember that not all political conversations have to take place at full shout, and that civility is not, in fact, dead.

P.S. Byrne won. Given that I like her and voted for her, I'm sure this is a kiss of death. But I'm looking forward to the campaign.

And about the governor's race... that's a subject for a whole different post. I'll revisit that subject soon.

Posted by Mediocre Fred at June 14, 2005 09:34 PM

"Geographical balance" means "Let's elect someone from way down south." And as someone who supports Northern Virginia secession, I say screw those guys.

Oddly enough I got Republican campaign materials in the mail leading up to the primary. All this "Conservative leadership!" stuff, making me say "You've got the WRONG HOUSE." It will be interesting to see if they keep up that theme for the general election.

Posted by: Carl at June 15, 2005 04:51 AM

Well, now... isn't Kaine from Richmond? And isn't the Dem attorney-general candidate from way-the-hell-and-gone in Bath County or someplace? So what sort of "geographical balance" are we talking about here?

That said, I believe in working within the system. Even if you favor Northern Virginia secession (I do), voting for "our guys" only works if our guys can win. As I said, I think Puckett leans too far to the right and is a bit of a huckleberry for my taste, but it remains to be seen if a self-proclaimed liberal like Byrne can win statewide.

Did you vote yesterday?

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at June 15, 2005 11:34 AM
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