When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to toss out Washington State's voter-approved "top two" primary, in which the two candidates with the highest vote totals move forward regardless of the party they belong to, officials with the two statewide political parties predicted unintended consequences.
Those predictions are now coming true in Seattle's 36th legislative district, where Democratic Party officials have defied an edict from the state party that they hold a special nominating convention to determine which of two candidates, Reuven Carlyle or John Burbank, will be the "official" Democratic Party nominee. Instead, the district opted to let both candidates move forward— drawing the ire of state party chair Dwight Pelz, who has argued that the parties should be able to pick a single nominee. (The two major parties are moving forward with their lawsuit.) Faced with an intransigent 36th District, Pelz stepped in and declared that Burbank, an active participant in Democratic Party politics and Pelz's friend of more than 20 years, was the nominee. Pelz says he's still holding out hope that the precinct committee officers will "step up and solve this" by agreeing to elect a single nominee, as they have in other districts.
Not likely, says Janis Traven, vice chair of the 36th District Democrats. Traven says her district decided against nominating a candidate because only precinct committee officers would be allowed to vote—effectively disenfranchising the 18,000 Democrats who participated in caucuses in the district and forcing the PCOs to do a job they weren't elected to do. "We have two candidates, both of whom are good Democrats," in the district, Traven says crisply. "We have a very robust endorsement process in our district, and I think we're just going to go ahead with that."
What this all means for the Democrats involved is anybody's guess. According to the Washington secretary of state's office, candidates may only indicate a party "preference" on the ballot. However, a candidate's statement in the voter guide, which gets mailed out to all registered voters in a district, can say just about anything, including whether the candidate was officially anointed as the nominee of the Democratic Party—a significant advantage in a district like the 36th, where the overwhelming majority of voters (about 80 percent) are Democrats.
Although the race has been amicable so far ("we're both good!" Carlyle declared cheerfully after a recent interview), the two candidates aren't identical. Carlyle, a motorcycle-driving wireless entrepreneur who helped found the community-service group City Year Seattle/King County, talks a lot about "comprehensive tax reform," public-private partnerships, and "technological innovations" like plug-in hybrid cars. He says his opponent, in contrast, supports "miscellaneous taxes that do not relate to the services they provide"—like 2003's failed "latte tax," which Burbank's think tank was behind. Burbank, a longtime Democratic Party activist, focuses more on "comprehensive health care" and "environmental problem solving"; he says what distinguishes him from Carlyle is that he's spent his life "working for the greater good and helping to knit together economic security for middle-class and low-income people," not making money; and he suggests Carlyle will be beholden to the business community. "A lot of the work we're going to have to do is moving against [business interests]," Burbank says. "When I get into the legislature, I'm unfettered."
Voters will have plenty of time to get to know both candidates. Because both are certain to move forward in the August primary—unlike in other districts, in which only one Democrat's name will appear on the primary ballot.