A California Initiative Process Turned on Its Head6 min read

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On a recent trip to Chicago, I had the interesting good fortune of getting into a cab driven by a long-standing Chicago cabbie, complete with real Chicago accent and all. It seems he had been driving a cab for over 30 years in the Windy City and been very involved in local politics at the same time.

He regaled about the current Mayor, Richard M. Daley, likes him a lot, but finds Chicago politics so corrupt –what with neighborhood bosses and precinct captains running the show, that he has just about had it.

He lamented that it was time for term limits, but that the electeds would never vote for them and thus put themselves out of a job; he bemoaned the top-heavy and hard-balled way contracts were doled out and predicted that Hizzoner would be going the way of the former Governor and find himself in prison garb before the end of his next term, if only because 20 years as mayor leads to lots of temptation and transgression.

All this led me to thank our great state of California and Hiram Johnson’s contribution to direct democracy—the Initiative process. That is, until I returned to California to be reminded how current money has corrupted this attempt to ensure that the people control the politicians and not vice versa.

Once back in the less windy, above 40 degree weather, I noted the frenzy of measures trying to qualify for the coming 3 election cycles. We’ve got dozens out for signature, many of which are warmed-over versions of those tried in the last several elections as well as initiatives contesting each other and measures being funded by out-of-state billionaires without even a miniscule interest in what the consequences might be to our state. We’re just their guinea pig, their petrie dish for often right-wing notions of how to best get rid of government or muck up the system just enough to ensure it can’t function.

Clearly, these attitudes were not what Hiram Johnson had in mind when he brought direct democracy to California. In fact, it was exactly the opposite that motivated him: It was a way to remove power from the ultra-wealthy railroads that were controlling the legislature and thus running the state. If the people had a chance to get directly into the issues, Johnson reasoned, then the voice of the people will be able to overcome the moneyed interests that have a lock on the process.

Now, of course, the reverse has become the rule. If anyone wealthy enough wants to play in our sandbox, they simply have to put enough money into the signature gathering process, pay suspicious types a high rate per signature, often have them misrepresent and utterly falsify what non-discriminating voters sign and then spend millions to either advance or defeat a measure that will have grave impacts on California.

You don’t have to live here (to wit Howie Rich from New York who is an unabashed Libertarian who wants to destroy our zoning and land use policies in California and otherwise reduce California to chaos) to the anti-choice leaders willing to put challenges to women’s reproductive freedom on the chopping block in election after election after election, even though they go down to unceremonious defeat each time. OF course, the thinking here is to strip bare the financial coffers of these groups so they are unable to serve their constituencies because they’re always having to fight these ill-conceived and often mean-spirited efforts to deny rights to others that the state has firmly established must be honored and protected.

The most blatant and insidious of this twisting of our state’s direct democracy is the effort by anti-democratic forces to neutralize California’s role in electing the President of the United States. This group of bottom-dwellers is so desperate to win the Presidency regardless of cost or its toll on our democracy. Their plan is to propose we split our electoral votes. No matter what high-and-mighty theories they use, the fact is that they’re only going after California because they know we have 55 electoral votes and that they’re most likely to go to the Democratic candidate for President. They’re not calling for a similar system in Ohio, Florida, Texas or any of the other major states where Republicans have historically won the state. No, this is blatant, anti-democratic finagling that should actually land people in jail. Instead, its all part of our wide-open initiative/referendum process that opens the gates of California to rich ne-er do wells trying to bring our state-and nation to its knees; trying to destroy the system of democracy we so proudly salute and honor as the true democracy of the world. Of course, that’s only if the designated people prevail.

Much has been said about how the intent of the initiative process has been destroyed or manipulated to do exactly the opposite of what it was intended to do. We see it in virtually every election where out-of-state players come into California loaded with millions of dollars and millions of lies to change the way we do business here. While the process has certainly done many good things, like so much of what has happened in the political world today, the prospects of riches and power have degraded our system to a level that requires we re-evaluate just how we do business.

While there have been many efforts to clean up the process so the true intent of Californians exercising their rights directly is based upon legitimate California issues expressed by real Californians and funded by the people. We can start at the beginning of the process: requiring that signature gatherers be California residents and not transients; that false representations of what these initiatives say is a felony; that funding for these signature gatherers must be through sources directly in California and that no initiative can be repeated within a certain length of time of a similar subject matter measure that was voted on in a past election.

There are many more and perhaps better approaches which we should be considering very carefully. I welcome any suggestions that will clean up and clear the playing field so that real Californians are the ones defining the issues and the game.

Maybe things are a little too cozy in Chicago, but at least its Chicago calling their shots. Time we get to call our own shots here in California, too.

Hannah-Beth Jackson is a former Assemblymember who served in the California Assembly from 1998-2004. She Chaired the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety, the Committee on Natural Resources as well as the Legislative Women’s Caucus.

She started Speak Out California and serves as its President. Speak Out California is a progressive internet site envisioned by California’s progressive leaders to effectively craft the issues and messages that will encourage public participation in bringing new ideas and vision to California’s political landscape. Jackson will be a candidate for election to the State Senate in 2008.

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