Wanted: Persistent Progressive Propositions

Howard Jarvis, Prop 13 architect

Howard Jarvis, Prop 13 architect

Imagine a California where the state legislature passes a budget by majority rule, and you can register to vote on Election Day. Three Strikes has been reformed to require the third “strike” to be a violent felony, and we have single-payer health care. The wealthy pay a higher income tax rate, and – just like in Alaska and Texas – oil companies must pay a modest tax for the privilege of extracting oil.

Each of these laws were put on the state ballot once in the last 15 years, but failed – never to be tried again. As progressives take another shot at repealing the two-thirds budget requirement, it’s apparent that progressives give up too quickly on voters. Conservatives, on the other hand, go back to the ballot with their ideas until they win. One reason is the Left lacks an equivalent to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association – an ideological, movement-driven group willing to sustain a long-term vision. Another is that progressive initiatives are too often bankrolled by liberal millionaires – not a sustainable strategy for building a permanent grassroots presence.

And in a deep blue state like California, there really is no excuse.

In the last 30 years, California has gone from a swing state that elected Ronald Reagan – to one of the most Democratic parts of the country. But when it comes to Propositions, progressives have failed to convince the voters – who continue to pass right-wing policies. Liberals are too quick to curse the initiative process and call the voters “stupid,” without bothering to learn how to use the system (which is not going anywhere.) Now, as the two-thirds budget rule paralyzed the state – giving us right-wing cuts to education, health and human services – it’s time to look at our spectacular failure at passing propositions.

California voters rejected single-payer health care in 1994 – a conservative year when Newt Gingrich became House Speaker, Pete Wilson was re-elected Governor and a very white electorate denied health care benefits to undocumented immigrants. In 1996, a proposition to restore the upper-income tax brackets failed by a razor-thin margin – as voters were focused on more high-profile measures like medical marijuana and banning affirmative action. Yet, we never got the chance to weigh in on these measures again.

More recently, we saw voters in 2004 narrowly defeat a modest reform at Three Strikes – after Schwarzenegger lied to them about what it did. Two years later, they rejected a proposition to pass a tax on oil companies. I voted for Proposition 87 like a good liberal, but even I didn’t learn that California is the only oil-producing state in the country without an oil severance tax.

Even basic measures that could have made a huge impact on California’s political future only got one bite at the apple. Voters said “no” to same-day voter registration in 2002? Guess we’ll never see that again, although it’s good enough for nine other states. A poorly run campaign in 2004 blew our chance at scrapping the two-thirds budget rule, and we’re suffering the consequences five years later. Only because we are in a terrible crisis now do we see Democratic leaders make noise about it, as we have no other choice.

Compare this with what conservatives do after they lose. In June 1998, voters rejected Proposition 226 – which would have required unions to get written permission from each and every member before spending money for political purposes. Seven years later, they put it on the ballot again and lost – so expect them to come back soon. Weakening rent control under the guise of “eminent domain reform” did not pass the voters’ smell test in 2006, so in less than a month they were back to collecting signatures for a complete ban on rent control.

And in three elections – 2005, 2006 and 2008 – the anti-choice zealots have put virtually identical propositions to require parental notification for teenage girls getting an abortion. I always wondered if this blatant repetitive strategy would be counter-productive, given that all three measures failed by about the same margin. But political consultants from Planned Parenthood said the average voter did not remember it being on the ballot before – making this approach (although incredibly annoying) a smart move if you can afford it.

The Right has been so good at repeatedly placing measures on the ballot that sometimes they win without anyone noticing. In 1996, voters passed Proposition 218 – a measure by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association that required every local tax increase to get a two-thirds vote at the ballot. Three Strikes passed in 1994, and now it’s conventional wisdom that Californians will pass any right-wing “law-and-order” proposition on the ballot – allowing Prop 21 (in March 2000), Prop 83 (in November 2006) and Prop 9 (in November 2008) to all pass easily. Frankly, it gets tiresome keeping track of them all.

Why does this happen? Not that California voters are conservative (they’re not), but because progressives are risk-averse at facing the electorate. A proposition campaign is expensive and time-consuming. You need to collect at least one million signatures, and run a strategy to reach the state’s 17 million registered voters. And an effective campaign requires a preemptive message to handle the well-funded attacks hurled by opponents.

In recent years, practically the only liberals willing to put initiatives on the ballot were millionaires who bankrolled the effort. In 1998, Rob Reiner put Proposition 10 on the ballot – which raised cigarette taxes. Same-day voter registration was the project of Rob McKay, an heir of the Taco Bell fortune. And the 2006 campaign to pass an oil severance tax (Prop 87) was almost entirely financed by a Hollywood media mogul. The problem with this (mostly unsuccessful) approach is that it does nothing to sustain a permanent base of progressive activists – ready to take up the next initiative campaign in the next election cycle.

Right-wingers at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association understand that elections are transitory – and a long-term approach requires going back to the voters over and over again. Is it expensive to keep putting things on the ballot? Sure, but a grassroots effort can keep people engaged in the issue – even if you don’t win every time. And it can be done on the cheap. In 1976, the United Farm Workers collected 720,000 signatures in less than 30 days to put Proposition 14 (labor law reform) entirely with volunteers.

California sent more volunteers to swing states last year to elect Barack Obama, made more phone calls than all other states combined and sent small contributions of less than $100 because they wanted to change the country. We can run a progressive campaign to put propositions on the ballot, and help save California. The first step is to get over our elitist frustrations with those “ignorant voters” – and give them something to support.

Paul Hogarth

Republished with permission from BeyondChron.

Published by the LA Progressive on August 5, 2009
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About Paul Hogarth

Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron -- an alternative online daily based in San Francisco providing news coverage ignored or distorted by the San Francisco Chronicle. He is a tenants' rights attorney at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, an active member of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and was an elected official on the Berkeley Rent Board from 2000-2004. He lives in San Francisco.