News & Election Videos

Incumbents advance in low turnout Calif. primary

Juliet Williams

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein easily advanced to the November ballot in California's statewide primary Tuesday and voters overwhelmingly approved a change to the state's 22-year-old legislative term limits law. Early returns showed voters split on adding a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes to fund cancer research in an election that tested sweeping new political reforms.

The primary was the first statewide use of a top-two voting system and newly redrawn legislative and congressional districts. Voters also weighed two ballot initiatives: one to alter legislative term limits and the tobacco tax.

Proposition 28, which would cut the total time lawmakers could serve in the state Legislature, passed easily, with 65 percent of the vote in early returns Tuesday night.

Feinstein, the 78-year-old incumbent Democrat, easily advanced to the general election, where she will face the next highest vote-getter. Elizabeth Emken, an autism activist who won the GOP's endorsement, had a healthy lead in a crowded field of 23 challengers, 14 of them Republicans.

San Diego and San Jose _ the nation's eighth- and 10th-largest cities _ were being closely watched as voters decided on heated measures to curb retirement benefits for current government workers. San Diego also has a fierce mayoral fight.

Some voters were hopeful that the new top-two system will deliver more competitive contests and more moderate candidates even as they were confronted with a longer, more complicated ballot. In some cases, candidates of the same party are vying to meet again in November, but early returns showed independent candidates not faring well.

"I think it helps to level the playing field," said attorney Susan Hyman after casting her Democratic ballot at a skilled nursing facility in Long Beach. "The districts have been too entrenched by party."

Two long-serving Democrats, Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, advanced to a November showdown in a bitterly contested San Fernando Valley area House district that was a marquee matchup among California's congressional races.

Two Democrats also appeared headed for a same-party showdown in the Central Coast's 13th Senate District, where Assemblyman Jerry Hill of San Mateo faced former Assemblywoman Sally Lieber of Redwood.

Election officials reported few problems at the polls and traffic was slow throughout the day, with some pundits predicting voter turnout could be as low as 25 percent, which would be a record low for a presidential primary.

"It looks abysmal," Contra Costa Registrar of Voters Steve Weir. "It looks like this could be an almost all mail-in ballot elections. It's seemingly that bad."

Weir estimated that about 20 percent of ballots might not be processed Tuesday, which could mean candidates could wait to find out if they make the November runoff.

In San Diego, four well-known candidates were running for a spot in the fall runoff which will feature the top two finishers.

Republicans Carl DeMaio, a city councilman, and Bonnie Dumanis, a three-term San Diego County district attorney, ran against U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, the lone Democrat, and state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who switched his affiliation from GOP to independent.

DeMaio led with 33 percent of the vote in early returns, with Filner in second place.

The top-two primary has triggered a new phenomenon where some of the hottest contests are those in which candidates of the same party are likely to meet again in November.

Democrats hope to pick up as many as six seats in California's 53 congressional districts and have been working to register more voters in traditionally Republican-leaning areas of the Central Valley and the Inland Empire region of Southern California.

Voters were deciding on just two statewide ballot measures Tuesday, after the Legislature passed a law moving all future initiatives to general elections.

They approved Proposition 28, which will reduce the total number of years lawmakers can serve in the Legislature from 14 to 12, but allow them to serve all that time in one house. The current term limits are among the strictest in the nation.

Voters also were asked whether to add a $1-a-pack tax to cigarettes to help fund cancer research and anti-smoking campaigns. The measure is backed by cycling legend and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong.

Opponents, including tobacco companies, poured more than $47 million into their campaign, compared with the nearly $18 million raised by supporters.

Both pension proposals drew national attention but differed on details.

San Diego's pension proposal would impose a six-year freeze on pay levels used to determine pension benefits unless a two-thirds majority of the City Council votes to override it. It also would put new hires, except for police officers, into 401(k)-style plans.

Under San Jose's Measure B, current workers would have to pay up to 16 percent of their salaries to keep their retirement plan or accept more modest benefits. New hires would get less generous benefits.

The Associated Press