The Hundred Years War, L.A.-Style

By Patt Morrison, Op-Ed

Do you mean to tell me that in the time that I've been away, the pope dies and is laid to rest, the Dodgers win their home opener, Jane Fonda comes clean, the FDA yanks another as-seen-on-TV Rx off the market, Prince Charles finally marries the right girl â€" and the L.A. mayor's race is still not over?

Last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair drove to Buckingham Palace and asked Queen Elizabeth to prorogue Parliament. I love that word, "prorogue." It means to end a session of Parliament, in this case to clear the decks for an election. Our word for ending a session of Congress is "adjournment," which means "to step up the fundraising."

So Blair rolls out of the palace gates and, just like that, an election is on â€" for May 5. A nationwide election for Britain's top job â€" called, conducted and counted â€" all in a month's time. You'll never hear another snotty word from me about British efficiency.

As for this time zone: Do you happen to remember when the deadline was for Jim Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa and the rest to file their paperwork to run for mayor? Dec. 8 â€" last year! And do you know the date of the mayoral runoff election? May 17! The entire United Kingdom takes one month to decide whether to keep its incumbent leader, and the city of Los Angeles can't manage to do the same in five.

A monthlong election shouldn't be time enough for the prime minister to pronounce his full name â€" Anthony Charles Lynton Blair â€" but the Brits are already going at it hammer and tong about the Iraq war, street crime, immigration, trade â€" without getting sidetracked by irrelevancies like one candidate's 35-year-old war record.

The longer our campaigns go on, the less gets said. We don't get cut-and-thrust debate, we get cut-and-dried sloganeering: "Compassionate conservative." "Potholes fixed in 24 hours." And this from guys who begin running for an office years before it's even vacant: George W. Bush started running for president the day he was sworn in for a second term as governor of Texas. Hahn began running for mayor when he was about 12 years old.

It isn't cheap, our state of perpetual campaigning. Britain's 2001 national election cost $1.65 per eligible voter. Our 2000 equivalent: $13.50 per. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who's been rattling his collection plate from gold coast to gold coast, is closing in on scaring up $150 million â€" and scaring is the word â€" from his fellow millionaires to mount a November special election on his pet initiatives.

If we wanted to make campaigns and elections rational â€" and I'd just settle for tolerable â€" there are some things we could do:

• Copy Arizona. It shames me to say this, but the state that once banned the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is now way ahead of cutting-edge California. It has public campaign financing to die for. Arizona tacks 10% onto every civil and criminal fine â€" from speeding tickets to felonies â€" simultaneously sticking it to lawbreakers and to incumbent lawmakers as it raises money to allow just-folks to run for office and win. We have voted for some version of campaign finance reform 12 times in a dozen years, but each time politicians have managed to water the reform down like cheap beer.

• Shorten campaigns. My apologies to political consultants and to their mortgage companies, but one reason campaigns go on so bloody long is to raise money for … long campaigns. The only people paying attention early on are the lobbyists and donors rooting to get their guy in office. Voters don't perk up until the homestretch. The shorter the election, the lower the cost of the campaign and the less time and reason for special interest high-rollers to spend their millions.

• Demand more TV campaign coverage. In a survey of 122 stations in the nation's top 50 media markets, a majority of the top-rated stations ran no campaign stories â€" nada â€" in the seven weeks before the 2002 elections. That's no way to inform the public â€" and the FCC should do something about it.

• Hold fewer elections. Californians have been trudging off to punch chads or ink-a-vote so often lately it feels like a budget tour of Europe â€" if it's Tuesday, this must be the mayoral primary. Or is it the recall? Schwarzenegger's autumn special election would make the sixth statewide election in three years. I don't balance my checkbook that often.

He didn't have short election cycles in mind when he said it, but a very quotable Briton named Samuel Johnson once remarked: "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Elections and hangings share more than a deadline â€" the longer they go on, the more painful they are.


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