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Originally published November 8, 2014 at 4:03 PM | Page modified November 10, 2014 at 11:02 AM

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How to fix the American political system from within

Former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe is working to change the American political system by taking her arguments to the people, columnist Kate Riley writes.

Times editorial page editor

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Olympia Snowe is no quitter.

The former Republican U.S. senator from Maine, known as much for her pragmatic grace as her stiff backbone, disappointed many when she decided in 2012 not to run for a fourth term. Her political moderation was what Congress needed more of.

But Snowe, who never lost an election in 35 years running for office, wasn’t quitting. She was taking her fight to a higher authority — the people of the United States.

She believes Washington’s top-two primary — or something like it — proliferated across the land might help get Congress back to serving the people, rather than the extremes and special interests. More about that later.

In 2011, Snowe watched the utterly unnecessary debt crisis, where citizens suffered real consequences for political posturing. She saw no hope on the horizon for the Senate to robustly return to the people’s interests.

“All votes were constituted in a way that it was all or nothing,” Snowe recalled. “There were no opportunities to resolve differences through amendments.”

She woke up in the middle of a winter night with a conclusion: “I was going to try to change things from the outside.” She has spent the last two years doing just that.

Snowe was in Seattle Thursday for a speech at the University of Washington Graduate School lecture series. Her book, “Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress,” was published earlier this year.

For 18 months, she was a co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform with two former U.S. Senate majority leaders, Republican Trent Lott from Mississippi and Democrat Tom Daschle from South Dakota. In June, the group published several recommendations for improving the U.S. political system so it once again serves the American people with vetted, vigorously debated solutions.

I asked Snowe what top three things could make a difference: Within Congress, she’d like to see institutional rule changes, such as syncing up the House and Senate schedules; more bipartisan and bicameral meetings; and filibuster reform that would prohibit filibustering of whether a bill could even be brought up for consideration. “Allow the conversation to happen instead of to be stopped,” she said.

Outside Congress, redistricting reform would reintroduce competitiveness in more districts around the country. She also likes the idea of open primaries.

Washington’s top-two primary allows all voters to have a say in who gets on the general election ballot. With closed primaries, Republicans vote only on Republican candidates and Democrats vote only on Democrats. That’s more likely to lead to especially ideological choices for voters, most of whom live in the middle of the political spectrum.

Case in point: While Snowe made her argument in the Hotel Deca in the University District, just across the Cascade Mountains, Republican Dan Newhouse was hanging on to his comfortable lead in Washington’s 4th Congressional District race over a challenger out of the extreme tea party mold.

Voters had a choice between two Republicans: Newhouse, who is a Yakima County farmer, a former state lawmaker and former state agriculture director under a Democratic governor, and Clint Didier, a Franklin County farmer who was depicted in a stunning opposition TV ad telling people to put their ham radios in the ground. Whoa. As the sage grouse flies, the men live only a couple of counties apart — but worlds apart on the Republican spectrum.

Didier would be the winner, if Washington had a closed partisan primary, as most states do. Didier got more Republican primary votes, and he would have faced a Democratic candidate with no chance of getting elected in such a right-leaning district.

So instead of Newhouse bringing his pragmatic Republicanism and solid public service resume to D.C., the 4th District might have sent the ideologically bellicose Didier to muscle up that rogue tea-party faction in the House Republican caucus.

Snowe believes Tuesday’s election was a sign voters are losing patience with congressional intransigence.

“It was a mandate to get things done. Both parties would ignore it at their peril,” she warned. “People aren’t going to settle for it. They are going to find a third way.”

Amen. Maybe Newhouse could help tether the House Republican caucus to moderation from within, while Snowe keeps working up the electorate to demand something better.

Something has to change.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is

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