Volunteers Ready to Comment on Multi-City California Initiative Victories for Nation’s Strongest Campaign Reform
As the Senate has begun to amend, and water down, the campaign finance reforms in the McCain-Feingold bill, citizen volunteers in California successfully enacted the strongest campaign finance provisions in the nation. Volunteers with the Oaks Project celebrated victories in five California cities over the last year as voters overwhelmingly approved local ballot initiatives to prohibit public officials from trading votes for campaign contributions.
While McCain-Feingold focuses on the corruptive influence of money which pours into politicians’ war chests during an election campaign, little attention is paid to the vast amounts which fill the coffers while a politician is in office. California Governor Gray Davis alone has amassed millions of dollars in his war chest since he took office in 1998. The Oaks Project initiatives limit the destructive influence of money in politics by prohibiting public officials from accepting campaign contributions, gifts or employment from those who have benefited as a result of the official’s actions.
“Hundreds of average citizens gave up their nights and weekends to enact these five initiatives and win the support of over 275,000 voters statewide,” stated Oaks Project organizer Carmen Balber. “Their unprecedented success sends a clear message to politicians in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. that voters will not sit idly by and wait for real reform. If the politicians can’t reform themselves, the public will.”
While politicians in each city claimed that kickbacks were not a problem, these same politicians fought the measures when they seemed likely to pass. The exception was San Francisco, where there was no ballot argument submitted to oppose the Oaks initiative.
“People told us that it was a no-brainer. San Francisco, like other big cities, has had a reputation for political dealing-making that will no longer be legal to carry on,” said Jim Ausman, a San Francisco Oaks Project volunteer.
Members of the Oaks Project gathered over 65,000 all-volunteer signatures to qualify the measures for the ballot in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Claremont and Vista. Their grassroots campaigns focused on direct citizen contact and get-out-the-vote efforts, which stand in stark contrast to the high-priced political consulting firms hired to run signature gathering drives and media campaigns.
“Regardless of city, people responded to the opportunity to eliminate the corrosive influence of money in politics,” notes Jim Frinier, a volunteer organizer with the Oaks Project in Los Angeles. “ItÃƒÂ•s gratifying to see that the initiative process, when used correctly, can work for the average Californian.”
In Vista the city council spent tens of thousands of dollars in an attempt to kick the Oaks initiative off the ballot. When this failed, the council placed their own measure on the ballot in an effort to confuse voters and kill the Oaks measure. Included within the cityÃƒÂ•s measure was a “poison pill” provision which disqualified the Oaks initiative when the city’s measure received more votes. Just this week, an appeals court ruled that a lawsuit ÃƒÂ a carry-over from the pre-election challenge – brought by Vista and the other cities where it passed was now moot.
“Our city politicians have shown that theyÃƒÂ•ll do whatever it takes to maintain business as usual at city hall,” stated San Diego County volunteer Brad Drake, who has gathered over 2000 signatures for citizens’ initiatives since joining the Oaks Project. “ItÃƒÂ•s the height of hypocrisy to spend the public’s money to attack a measure that prevents tax dollars from being traded for kickbacks. These politicians have a responsibility to honor the will of the voters and enact both measures.”
Unfortunately, volunteers missed qualifying the measure for the Irvine ballot by a mere 80 signatures out of a total of 12,000. However, a week after conceding, Oaks volunteersÃƒÂ• suspicions were confirmed: Irvine Councilman Dave Christenson was caught taking kickbacks (campaign loans and contributions) from those he voted to award city contracts. Oaks will be meeting with a city council committee on Monday, March 26 to propose the adoption of a city charter amendment modeled on the organizationÃƒÂ•s initiative.
“Every city needs this kind of taxpayer protection now. We should not wait until a politician gets caught with his or her hand in the peoplesÃƒÂ• cookie jar to react,” warned Orange County Oaks volunteer organizer Kevin Cavanaugh.
The Oaks Project
The non-profit, non-partisan Oaks Project was founded in 1997 by consumer advocates Ralph Nader and Harvey Rosenfield to train citizens to participate more effectively in CaliforniaÃƒÂ•s democracy. To become an Oak, volunteers attend monthly training in practical political skills and agree to spend 10-15 hours per month putting those skills to work on legislative and initiative campaigns to create a more democratic political system. Oaks volunteers also agree to raise $500 per year, and collect 1000 signatures on all Volunteer Qualified Initiatives (VQI). The Oaks Project played a decisive role in passing HMO patient protections in the California legislature in 1999 and spearheaded the 1998 drive to lower utility rates for California ratepayers by co-sponsoring Proposition 9.