Eric Davis: The case for competitive primaries

Late last year, Rep. Paul Ralston, one of Middlebury’s two representatives in the Vermont House, announced that he would not be a candidate for re-election in 2014.

Ralston’s departure will be a loss for the Vermont House, and for the Vermont Democratic Party. Ralston, the founder and CEO of the Vermont Coffee Company, is one of the few legislative Democrats who is an entrepreneur. Having the perspective of someone like Ralston, who has started multiple businesses, is important in the House Democratic caucus.

Most legislative Democrats are either retired, are attorneys, or have careers in the health care, education, or nonprofit sectors. Ralston has provided the Legislature with the viewpoint of someone who has had to hire employees, meet a payroll, deal with suppliers and customers in far-flung markets, and cope with many state and federal agencies and their regulations.

A study released last week by the Public Assets Institute showed that Vermont had 5,000 fewer private-sector jobs in 2012 than in 2007, before the onset of the financial crisis and recession. At a time when increased private sector employment is critical for economic development in Vermont, the Legislature needs more members like Paul Ralston, who can inform their colleagues about economic development from the vantage point of someone who has actually made job growth happen.

Ralston’s successor as one of Middlebury’s two representatives will almost certainly be a Democrat. Middlebury is one of the most strongly Democratic towns in the state, with Democratic candidates for top federal and state offices regularly receiving between 70 and 80 percent of the town’s votes on Election Day. It has been a long time since Republican candidates were competitive in legislative elections from the Middlebury district, and in recent election cycles the GOP has often failed to nominate candidates for the Middlebury House seats.

Because of the one-party nature of the Middlebury House district, the two winners of the August 2014 Democratic primary will be strong favorites to win the general election in November. Although I am not a voter in the Middlebury district (I live in Cornwall), I believe it is important that Ralston’s successor be elected as the result of an open, competitive Democratic primary, rather than selected through an internal party process by a small number of Democratic insiders.

Competitive primaries in one-party districts can energize the party’s supporters in those districts by allowing them to participate in a meaningful way in the election of representatives who will have to cast votes on a wide range of issues in Montpelier. Competitive primaries force candidates to defend themselves and their positions before a wide range of voters, and provide the opportunities for debates and other public forums where all candidates have to present themselves and their ideas before the voters, local organizations, and the local media.

Middlebury has an informed, active, and involved Democratic electorate. These voters deserve the opportunity to have a competitive, open House primary next August, with at least three candidates (including Rep. Betty Nuovo, should she decide to seek another term), contending for the support of the voters for the Democratic nominations for the two seats.

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I am pleased to be returning to the opinions page of the Independent after a two-month absence for medical reasons. I am making good progress in recovering, and would like to thank the many readers of this column who sent me good wishes while I was away. I hope to continue offering thoughtful reflections on state and national politics in the months and years ahead.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.


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