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Interview with David Thornburg

Posted by Jonathan Richter on July 31, 2018 at 11:58 AM

David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, poses for a portrait in his office in Philadelphia. | David Maialetti/Philly Inquirer

Open Primaries Sits Down with David Thornburg, CEO of Committee of Seventy

The issue of open primaries recently became front page news in Pennsylvania as some legislative leaders called for their adoption.  We sat down with David Thornburgh, President of the Committee of 70 to get his take on combatting partisan gerrymandering in one of the most challenging political climates in the country. His battle plan? Addressing money in politics, redistricting reform, and opening up the primaries.


Tell us a little about the Committee of 70.  What is its historic mission and what are your priorities for it now?

"The committee of 70 is a venerable, Philadelphia-based organization that has championed better government and better politics for over 100 years. We've been advocates for reforms such as securing contribution limits, creating a board of ethics, legislation that pushed back on pay-to-play practices and all of that has made a huge difference in the current political culture of Philadelphia-which is not perfect by any means. I’ve been with the group for three years and it’s certainly been an interesting time for democracy. People are very concerned with the architecture of democracy. A line that someone’s said that I agree with is “if democracy’s not broken, then at the very least it’s fixed.” There’s a great concern that our democracy doesn’t belong to the people anymore. That’s what brings issues like redistricting, open primaries, money in politics, and the role of the political parties in the process to the forefront as people begin to question the way the game of democracy is being played. Most recently, we’ve been involved in redistricting reform in PA. We’re launching a statewide effort called Draw The Lines, which is a citizen-mapping project, which will put redistricting data and software in the hands of any Pennsylvanian who wants it. The intent is to engage in a very hands-on, DIY fashion tens of thousands of people across the commonwealth who then have a stake in what happens.”


Political reform has been a hot topic in PA-gerrymandering and open primaries-what do you think is driving this conversation?

“We no longer seem to have a place where people from one point of view and another point of view can meet in the middle and work things out with some compromise or consensus and deliver something to the people. I think that’s a symptom and a consequence of partisan gerrymandering, closed primaries and locking out Independent voters. This hyper-partisan tribalism has been particularly disturbing to a lot of folks in PA because it feels like we had a tradition of bringing these forces together.”


Senate President Scarnatti, House Majority Leader Dave Reed, Auditor General Depasquale and others in political leadership in the state are calling for open primaries with the suggestion that legislation is forthcoming.  Do you see a real opportunity here?

“Absolutely. And this is a really unusual thing to have legislative leadership step forward with an interest in moving this topic on to the agenda almost unprompted. It’s pretty remarkable. If you’re a legislative leader and you take your job seriously, your job is to drive your legislature towards a resolution or consensus, and I think they’re finding it frustrating that they can’t do that. I also think they recognize the amount of voters that are shut out of the process and if we allow those voters in it’s a little bit of the x factor that can’t be taken for granted and might help remedy the divide.”


Can you talk about some of the unique challenges that are presented while working on these reforms in cities like Philly and statewide in Pennsylvania?

“I think it’s one of the most challenging political environments in the country. It’s a big state with 12 million people, it has two major urban areas (Philly, Pittsburgh) but between them they’re only about 12% of the state’s population. Pennsylvania still has the largest rural population in the country, so the political centers are much more evenly distributed through out the state. Also, PA like a lot of states doesn’t have citizens initiative and referendum to put things on the ballot so we have to go through the legislative process. So, now you’re asking people whose careers depend on a certain set of rules to change those rules. In Philadelphia specifically, we have over 100,000 unaffiliated/third party voters and while we obviously think more people being engaged in the process is a good thing, that viewpoint isn’t always shared by folks running for office because it’s an unknown. Now that it’s been introduced we will see how the different political camps in PA react to it.”


You and John Opdycke put out an op-ed together in early June discussing ending gerrymandering and opening the primaries in PA. In the op-ed you talk about how these reforms most likely wouldn't transform politics in PA overnight but coupled together can help nudge the state back toward accomplishing things again. Can you talk a little bit about that?

“Well, of course it would be overstating the case to say that gerrymandering and closed primaries are the sole causes of political dysfunction. There’s a lot more swirling around. But as a group we have to focus on the things that we can do to change the rules of the game and I think those two specific issues go hand in glove in changing the political culture. In tandem together I think it’s almost like 1 +1=3 because they’re so complimentary of each other.”


What are the next three things you would love to see accomplished in PA?

“Broadly speaking: redistricting reform, opening up the primaries and addressing the money in politics (setting campaign limits). As a wild card I am intrigued by the energy that’s happening around ranked choice voting. So, I’m keeping an eye on that as well.”

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