Consumer advocate Jamie Court, author of "The Progressive Guide to Raising Hell." (Photo: Chelsea Green Publishing)
Acclaimed consumer advocate Jamie Court has
used his activist know-how to leverage huge changes for average people
over the past two decades. President of Consumer Watchdog, he has
mastered the art of turning anger into change, and his new book, "The Progressive Guide to Raising Hell",
is a toolkit for direct democracy – a step-by-step guide for citizens
to pressure the right people and use the right tactics to get the change
Joni Praded for Chelsea Green: You’ve been
called a hellraiser by the best of them. How did you come to be known as
an activist who gets results?
Jamie Court: I’ve rabble-roused on a
lot of issues – but some of my first big battles were against insurance
companies. When you fight those giants day in and day out, you have to
raise hell or you don’t get respect or results. As the president of
Consumer Watchdog, the American insurance industry’s greatest nemesis, I
have found that if you want to beat an insurance company, you need to
generate enough heat and light about their abuses.
During one of our first hellraising campaigns – to
stop health insurance companies from continually denying claims in the
early 1990s – we faxed a different picture and story of an HMO "casualty
of the day" for five months to every member of Congress and hundreds in
the press. The "people first" strategy got noticed on the Hill and off
because we were the first to put a different David in Goliath’s face
every day. Soon we became a source for those in the media and the
government who wanted to find real people who could talk about problems
with the insurance industry.
What launched your career as an activist?
My first job out of college in 1989 was canvassing
door-to-door to raise money for insurance reform Proposition 103. This
was the most successful progressive ballot measure in American history, a
transfer of tens of billions of dollars in wealth from insurers to
policyholders. Insurance companies were fighting back in the courts and I
was collecting support to defend against the measure. I would knock on
doors in a different neighborhood every night for about five hours with
the expectation I would raise "quota," about $110 per night. On the
canvass, you have to get results every night or you don’t have a job. I
averaged about 200 bucks per night. I loved the job and the challenge,
the notion that I was connecting people and persuading them to join
together in order to build their power. You’ve got nothing to lose on
the canvass, so you lay it all on the line at every door. Even today, I
find the best advocates started out by training on a canvass.
After that, I organized low-income people and
religious congregations to save public-assistance programs from budget
cuts, and ultimately from destruction by President Clinton’s welfare
deform scheme. When you represent the poorest of the poor in a budget or
legislative battle, you have to find a way of getting elected
officials’ attention. That’s when I first learned how to raise some hell
to get some respect.
And how did you do that?
We didn’t have money to give out in campaign
contributions or to hire lobbyists, but we had a lot of poor people with
very sincere and authentic stories to tell. So we found dramatic ways
to feature their humanity. For example, we bused hundreds of homeless
people to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors from Skid Row, and signed
each of them up for the two-minute public comment, required by law, to
talk about their plight.
The chairwoman of the board was furious that we
brought so many people and that their comments would take so much time.
It was like a homeless filibuster. The supervisors just didn’t want to
have to look these poor folks in the eye. So the chairwoman brokered a
deal on the spot to delay the cuts just to prevent all these people from
talking. That’s when I started to get a reputation for some unusual
When you have little money and lots of people to
represent, you need to find the most effective, creative way to make
your point. That pisses some people off, but others appreciate what you
are doing and rally to your cause. After you piss off enough people,
most insiders realize that they cannot change you or destroy you and
just have to deal with you.
In your new book, "The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell," you speak
to those who voted Obama and other liberals into office in the last
election, but are now losing faith that real change will happen. They
are getting downright mad, and you tell them to get even madder. Why?
There’s a Bertolt Brecht poem about an old German
woman during the depression who kept showing up, week in and week out,
at the grocery checkout line with all her groceries but no money to pay
for them. When asked why, she said this: if we don’t show up, how will
they know we can’t afford the food?
If people are happy with things, or seem to be, why would anything change?
We shouldn’t bury our anger, but embrace it. When we
get angry, we need to feel that anger fully, reflect on its causes –
then we can turn that emotion into power by speaking up so others can
join us. In the age of social media connection, in particular, the anger
we express about injustice has the ability to spread quickly and hit
its target hard.
Every year my group, Consumer Watchdog, hosts the
Rage for Justice Dinner, which recognizes those who get pissed off and
do something about it. They turned their anger into change. Last year we
honored Dennis Quaid, whose newborn twins were given a massive overdose
in the hospital that almost killed them. Dennis made the hospital spend
$60 million on electronic medical record keeping and his advocacy
helped make the case for a $20 billion federal investment in electronic
medical records. Without rage, there can be no justice, because it is
the fuel of the movement against injustice. Getting pissed off is the
true power of the people if you have the right tactics and a reasonable
solution built on the bedrock of strong public opinion.
What kind of changes do you want that populist rage to usher in?
Many of us who voted for President Obama in 2008 had
an expectation that he would truly reform health care, rein in Wall
Street, stand up to the oil companies ruining the climate and not give
in to the military-industrial complex. There are a lot of pissed-off
progressives right now who need to stay engaged, rather than turn away
from politics, or the Tea Party will be the only safe place for angry
citizens to express themselves. Progressives need to be honest about
their anger, speak up and have a strategy to move America forward that
doesn’t rely upon Obama or Congress.
The public option to the private health insurance
market, for example, is still a possibility at the state level if
progressives take up arms in the ballot initiative process to create the
option themselves. Wall Street won’t regulate itself, but the new
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers all of us a real
opportunity, for the first time, to petition a federal agency to stop
financial abuses that impact us. But consumers must engage.
The Gulf crisis is the best opportunity yet for real
climate change legislation, but it won’t happen unless progressives
insist the legislation really challenge the polluters and not give away
too much to the green tech financiers.
not war, was Obama’s promise, but he foolishly conceded to the war
hawks. Progressives have tremendous leverage now to confront Obama,
force an exit from Afghanistan and redirect the out-of-control military
budget back to domestic priorities -like jobs, schools and health care.
In your book, you outline what you call the
ten rules of populist power – essentially ten rules for forcing change.
Some are quite surprising. Which of these rules was the hardest to
learn, and to act upon?
The most difficult rule is always "Make it personal
for decision makers." The minute you make it personal for them, they try
to make it personal for you. Politicians claim they will never talk to
you again, or give you their vote. Sometimes they tell their friends not
to support you. There are still a couple of business-friendly
legislators in the California statehouse who won’t forgive us for
publishing their health insurance industry contributions years ago; they
won’t even talk to us. They took a hit with their constituents for the
connection between their money and their votes.
When we have made the fight personal for CEO’s and
executives, powerful companies and interest groups have tried to put us
out of business by asking donors to stop funding us. We get lawsuit
threats alleging defamation and threats of legislation to worsen
consumers’ lot if we keep going. We have lost donors because we made it
The powerful don’t like to be challenged personally, but they rarely concede to change if they are not.
You and the organization you run, Consumer Watchdog, have
organized some very successful ballot-box campaigns in California. What
were some of those campaigns and why did you choose to go the
The most successful populist ballot initiative in American history
was Proposition 103, which passed in 1988 despite $60 million in
insurance industry opposition. Consumer Watchdog’s founder Harvey
Rosenfield authored the initiative, which has saved motorists $62
billion on their auto insurance bills according to a recent report by
the Consumer Federation of America. The legislature had required all
Californians to buy auto insurance but refused to make it affordable by
regulating auto insurance premiums. Since the politicians would not bite
the insurance industry fingers that fed them, Harvey had to go to the
Similarly, when the California legislature refused to
pass laws giving patients the right to challenge HMO bureaucrats, we
went to the ballot, alongside the California Nurses Association, with
one of the first HMO patients’ bill of rights in the nation. We didn’t
win the first time around, but by 1998, California had the strongest HMO
patient protections in America.
Strong ballot measures are almost always an answer to
political gridlock. Politicians won’t move unless they face a real
threat at the ballot box, which is how some of my friends helped force
the toughest financial privacy legislation in America. They had the
signatures for a ballot measure in hand and made the legislature act.
At the local level, some of our volunteers took on
political corruption directly. They qualified through volunteer
signature-gathering, then passed the nation’s toughest
conflict-of-interest laws in cities across California via a ballot
measure to prevent pay-to-play politics. The reform prevented
politicians from accepting gifts, jobs or money from anyone they had
conferred a benefit on and was so tough that the supposedly progressive
city of Santa Monica tried to roll back the law a few years ago via
ballot measure. We stopped that effort and preserved the law. If such a
volunteer signature-gathering effort could be replicated on the state
level, it would open the door to sea-change reforms since it’s very
expensive to qualify a ballot measure.
Many of our successes in the initiative process in
recent years have been stopping greedy industries from using the
initiative process to roll back existing protections for the public. We
were dragged into those fights to protect the public. In June 2010, we
beat back a $16 million attempt by an insurance company to repeal a key
provision of Proposition 103 that it has targeted for 22 years. We were
outspent twelve to one, but helped voters see through the company’s
self-serving attempt to raise premiums.
You’ve taken on insurers, banks, oil
companies, utilities and politicians and you’ve used some pretty unique
tactics to get results – like purchasing the Social Security numbers of
California reps to prove a point about privacy. Can you tell us about
that? Why did you do it?
Financial privacy legislation had been stalled in a
key committee by a group of corporate-friendly legislators who had
received big campaign contributions from banks and refused to vote on
the measure at all. They wouldn’t vote no or yes; they just abstained.
They didn’t want to pay a price either with the public or the banking
lobbyists, so they just didn’t vote and "took a walk," as they call it
in the capitol. Their failure to vote kept the bill locked up in
The legislation – which required consumers to opt in
before financial services companies shared their personal information
with other companies – had huge public support, but the legislators just
wouldn’t move. I wanted to break the standstill and raise the stakes by
exposing just how much of our personal information was for sale on the
Internet for a relatively cheap price. I knew making it personal for the
politicians would provoke them. So I easily and legally bought the
Social Security numbers of all the state legislators who opposed the
legislation or refused to vote on it. Then I put up their partial Social
Security numbers on the Internet along with the partial Social Security
number of Governor Gray Davis. The politicians went ballistic. They
claimed I violated their privacy and called for the California Highway
Patrol and Attorney General to investigate. The media ate it up. It
proved our point. The politicians didn’t care enough about their
constituents to vote for privacy protections, but they wanted law
enforcement to protect their own. The spotlight on the committee
ultimately helped set the legislation free. What got the legislation
signed into law, though, was the collection of 700,000 signatures to put
a stronger privacy measure on Governor Davis’s desk. Chris Larsen, the
E-loan founder, who paid for the signature gathering, presented the
legislature and industry with an ultimatum: pass legislation in a week
or face a far tougher law at the ballot. They acquiesced.
Can you tell us about a few other radical moves you’ve made and the change they’ve prompted?
Stunts and props are a big part of our work. They can
be a lot of fun and put a spotlight on issues. For example, in May, to
highlight the fact that an insurance company CEO was funding the
deceptive California Proposition 17 but hiding behind a phony coalition,
we sent a man in a chicken suit to legislative hearings on the measure
to draw attention to the CEO-in-hiding. I have burned insurance policies
at politicians’ offices, brought a red herring to legislative hearings
to stop phony industry proposals, and delivered buckets full of manure
to the offices of Congressional representatives, like Chris Cox, to
reflect our lack confidence in their integrity.
My favorite stunt, though, is when we dumped a truck
load of beans at an HMO industry conference to point out our opposition
to HMO bean counters overriding doctors’ decisions. It was part of a
statewide tour to promote the right of doctors and patients to tell HMOs
what care was medically necessary. The legislative package implementing
the tough HMO-patients’-rights laws passed in 1998.
What do you think it will take to make
progressives take the kind of direct action that Tea Party supporters
have taken to get the change they want?
Mandatory health insurance purchases will kick in by
2014. That’s like a ticking time bomb for progressives because it
represents the worst of government – its coercive power to force
purchases of insurance from a hated industry. Progressives and their
leaders need to wake up and provide the public with concrete options and
guarantees before then or this will be a GOP-controlled nation again.
The state ballot measure process offers one hope for building and
improving on federal reforms. And it gives progressives causes that they
can rally around to advance the lot of average people. That’s something
the Tea Party doesn’t have. It’s a party of naysayers, not truth-sayers
Left-leaning interest groups – like labor,
environmentalists, trial lawyers, D.C. public interest types ñ are
hesitant to take on the president that they elected publicly for fear of
undermining his chances of reelection in 2012. They can turn out a lot
more people and attention than the fledging Tea Party, but the liberal
establishment refuses to expose and confront Obama about his failures.
It’s a crisis of will, not capacity. What they fail to see is that
unless the president gets a healthy injection of populist fervor between
now and 2012, he won’t win reelection. He needs to deal with, or begin
to deliver on, his promises from 2008, not simply toot his own horn and
say it’s the best Washington can deliver. That’s the opposite of the
talk that elected him and it will lead to GOP control of both houses and
the White House if progressives don’t get pissed off and demand better
in the same way the Tea Party does.
Reasonable people will have to listen to their anger
and their gut, then take to the streets and virtual town square online
for support. The good news is that the vacuum created by the silence of
the traditional liberal establishment leaves a huge opening for a
creative individual to get a lot of traction with the perfect salvo at
the right moment. Once public opinion continues to turn against Obama,
angrier minds will prevail inside the progressive movement and Obama
will have to join the drumbeat, rather than fight it. Democratic donors
are already refusing to open their wallets unless candidates try to
lessen the number of votes in the Senate it takes to overcome a
filibuster. The honeymoon with Obama is at an end, and it will start to
look like a divorce proceeding if failure in the midterm elections is
significant enough. That’s when Obama will have to turn towards
progressives and independents to energize them, or risk giving up the
keys to the White House.
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