I startled myself the other day with the realization that, unless I put it down on my calendar for Tuesday, I might actually forget to vote. This was unprecedented. I’ve never not voted. On the other hand, though, what was it that I–a registered Democrat in West Raleigh–was supposed to be voting about? There were no statewide primaries except for judgeships, and there were only three of them. Locally, the big deal–because it was the only deal–was the primary for Wake County Clerk of Court.

Why in the world do we elect the clerk of court? And in this case, both Democratic candidates were very nice people who would be fine clerks, I’m sure. My neighborhood was dotted with “Perry for Clerk” and “Freeman for Clerk” signs (lots of lawyers). But they only served to remind me that I’d have to make a choice come Tuesday, which I did not look forward to doing–the Indy‘s endorsement of Freeman notwithstanding.

There was one other Democratic primary for me–of sorts. My state representative, Deborah Ross, was opposed by a young man named Demian Dellinger, who did little or nothing as a candidate before “withdrawing” from the race; however, the ballots had already been printed. So Ross was forced to get out and defend her seat, which she did with the usual upbeat postcards and red, white and blue yard signs. I voted for Ross, who is doing an excellent job given the circumstances of the North Carolina House.

Then again, there were the circumstances of the N.C. House, and the N.C. Senate for that matter, which prompts me to ask why there weren’t more primary challengers–or any, aside from young Dellinger–to the Democratic incumbents. Did it not occur to any Democrat out there to file for office on a platform of demanding House Speaker Jim Black’s resignation? Or opposing more nuclear plants? How about support for mass transit, impact fees on new developments, and/or a living wage for full-time work?

The point wouldn’t be, necessarily, to defeat a Paul Luebke, the Durham representative who was unopposed, by Democrat or Republican, for election to his ninth term. More likely it would serve merely to extend him the courtesy due any representative, which is that his opinions should be heard–and tested–before he’d be tasked with representing his constituents further. Maybe, if he had an opponent, he’d have called for Black’s resignation himself. Absent one, he didn’t.

I don’t mean to pick on Luebke. Maybe everybody loves Luebke. Maybe everybody loves Janet Cowell, my state senator, also unopposed for re-election by Democrat or Republican. But guess what? It isn’t much of a democracy when legislators are “elected” without the bother of being listed on any ballot.

The reality of legislative races at the state and federal level is that the districts are so gerrymandered, it’s virtually a lost cause for a Republican to run in a Democratic district and vice versa. But if most districts are drawn up so they’re safe for one party or the other–and they are–why are there so few intra-party primaries?

The long answer is money, and the system in place in Raleigh for raising it, which is what has Speaker Black in trouble today but which has scandal written all over it for anybody who ascends to a position of party leadership. It’s a system devised by and for incumbents and the special interests who support them.

The short answer is also money, and the absence of it for challengers–unless they’re rich.

Usually, analysis of the antidote to this problem, which is public financing of campaigns, focuses on the help it would be to challengers from the other party; and it would be some help, I suppose, except for the gerrymandering problem. Even equal campaign funding, though, for a Republican challenger in a hopelessly Democratic district still equals hopeless.

On the other hand, create public financing for primary election challengers, and look out Luebke! (Can’t help it. It’s the alliteration.) Party primaries would proliferate!

And for my taxpayer-provided money, more primary campaigns wouldn’t hurt the Democrats one bit.

For one thing, it would help them meet head-on the charge that they don’t stand for anything. (Or will stand for everything.) It’s hard to talk out of both sides of your mouth on, say, impact fees when you’ve got a primary challenger–with money–who’s clearly for them or against them.

Debating the issues. What a concept.

The Democrats should try it.

Another thing is, about publicly financed primaries anyway, that they’d help incumbent Democrats get over their Jim Black disease, which is taking money from any old lobbyist with a buck and a bill. If your primary opponent is running with public funds–“clean,” in the parlance–you’d either have to run with clean money, too, or else open yourself up to the charge that, by taking Black-type booty, you’ve turned into a “dirty” Democrat.

As it happens, Ross–my representative–is one of the leaders of the House cleanup committee, called into creation to save Black’s butt. It is busily proposing such obvious reforms as not spending your campaign money on yourself, and so forth. (Which some legislators are “shocked, shocked!” to learn was legal.)

But Ross has just managed to move a very real, very important reform ahead in her subcommittee, by a 4-1 vote on Thursday, in the form of a pilot project to test public financing of legislative campaigns.

We have public financing now of the nonpartisan judicial races for state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals–candidates qualify for it by getting a set number of private contributions in amounts as small as $5, then forego any more donors’ money–and most of the candidates are taking it. But getting public financing for legislative races has been a lot tougher, and the reason is the fear of intra-party primaries.

But if the full House reform panel approves the pilot, it’ll have a chance on the House floor when the short session begins next week, if for no other reason than that the Democrats will be falling all over themselves to show what good reformers they are–and pay no attention to Mr. Black up there.

Then, if the House passes it, the Senate would be under some pressure to pass it too before the ’08 elections.

It’s still a long-shot, no doubt. And “details” of the pilot bill were left undecided, including which districts to test it in. (How about, say, the most gerrymandered ones?)

But a long-shot bill is better than a lost cause, which is what legislative campaign financing was before last week.

Those judicious Democrats

Here’s another reason to encourage Democratic primaries. If the best Democratic candidates in the nonpartisan judicial races were eliminated yesterday–like Robin Hudson, endorsed by the Indy in the state Supreme Court primary, and Bob Hunter and Linda Stephens, our picks in the Appeals Court primaries–blame the fact that there were a lot more hotly contested Republican primaries around the state than Democratic ones.

Hot primaries equal big turnouts. The intra-party battle on the Republican side between candidates backed by conservative millionaire Art Pope, on one side, and the “moderate” GOP legislators allied with Rep. Richard Morgan, on the other, promised to bring Republicans to the polls in far larger numbers than the handful of Democratic primaries around the state.

What’s more, the state Republican party endorsed specific candidates in the three judicial races, choosing between competing Republicans in each of them. Meanwhile, the Democratic party stood aside, and simply noted to their voters which candidates were Democrats.

So on top of their turnout problems overall, in the Supreme Court race the Democratic voters were likely to be split among the three Democratic candidates, while Republican voters probably coalesced around one of their two, namely Ann Marie Calabria.

Is that what happened?

Bottom line: Even if our Democratic candidates don’t like the democratic process, the rest of us Democrats generally prefer it.

Contact Citizen at rjgeary@mac.com.