California Democrats are threatening to put the Democratic presidential candidates on the ballot in a proposed statewide initiative election this December and possibly elect their delegates to the party's national convention three months earlier than national party rules allow.
Although Californians have long complained that the state's traditional June primary date dilutes their influence in presidential elections, the proposal, announced by Democratic state Chairman Peter D. Kelly, is a matter of intrastate partisan bickering over reapportionment rather than national politics. It is just the latest byzantine twist of events flowing out of the controversial 1981 redistricting plan of the late representative Phillip Burton (D-Calif.).
Don Sebastiani, a Republican state assemblyman from Sonoma County, has collected signatures for an initiative that would alter current lines for congressional and state legislative districts radically and threaten the Democrats' majorities in the congressional delegation and the state senate and assembly.
Republican Gov. George Deukmejian is considering calling a special election on the Sebastiani initiative in December. Special elections generally produce a low turnout, which favors Republicans, and the plan to increase Democratic turnout by putting the presidential candidates on the ballot along with the initiative is "reapportionment politics, pure and simple," Kelly said.
Democrats in the legislature are trying to persuade Deukmejian not to call the election by adding to the state budget a trailer bill that would require their convention delegates to be elected in any statewide election held before the spring dates now under consideration. National Democratic Party rules forbid the selection of delegates before the official primary season "window" of March 13 to June 12.
However, the legislature could approve a non-binding preferential primary without running afoul of the national party rules.
"I'm sorry to cause the national party any trouble. But . . . I am most concerned with combatting this Sebastiani madness," Kelly said.
The national party could cause California some trouble, however, as it has threatened not to recognize and seat any presidential convention delegates who are selected outside the "window."
The Republicans are proposing a new redistricting plan because the voters approved a referendum that allowed the 1982 elections to be held under the Burton plan but required the district lines to be withdrawn. The Democratic-controlled legislature did so early this year, but the Republicans are challenging the results.
The national party has granted exemptions for New Hampshire and Iowa, who are traditionally first in the nation, to begin their delegate selection before the official season, and Louisiana is expected to conduct a straw poll of the Democratic candidates in its statewide primary this fall.