All-Volunteer Campaigns a Sign of Citizens’ Power to Enact Strong Conflict of Interest Protections When Politicians Will Not Act
CALIFORNIA – Volunteers with the Oaks Project celebrated a victory at the polls in a multi-city drive for campaign reform, the first of its kind in California. The Oaks Project, sponsors of campaign reform initiatives in several cities, pronounced the outcome a double success: both curbing the influence of special interest money in politics and proving the power of volunteer-based organizing to accomplish the task when public officials will not act. The measure was on the ballot in San Francisco (Prop J), Santa Monica (Prop LL), and Vista (Prop W, north San Diego county). The passage of the propositions demonstrates the desire of voters to enact strong protections against politicians trading votes for campaign contributions.
The signature gathering and get-out-the vote efforts for the propositions were done by volunteers, unprecedented in this age of paid signature gathering and high-priced campaigns run by public relations firms. In stark contrast, Prop J, LL, and W volunteers handed out tens of thousands of flyers, made thousands of phone calls and knocked on thousands of doors to educate voters and get out the vote.
“The measure’s victory is a model for citizen volunteers taking on city hall and winning,” stated Robert Seldon, a volunteer Oaks organizer in Santa Monica. “The months of signature gathering and voter education by volunteers shows that ordinary, well-organized people can pass the real reform that voters support but that the entrenched political establishment will not address.”
Oaks Project volunteers turned in over 65,000 signatures from city voters in support of “The Taxpayer Protection Amendment of 2000” in June. Oaks volunteers also qualified the measure for the March 2001 ballot in Pasadena and Claremont. The measure will prohibit a public official from accepting campaign contributions, future employment or gifts from those who have benefited as a result of the official’s actions. Examples of “benefits” include the awarding of city contract, land deals and tax breaks.
Volunteers in Irvine came up 81 signatures short for qualifying for the November ballot. However, a week after missing the ballot, an Irvine councilman was caught taking kickbacks from a developer. Irvine volunteers are now pushing to have the initiative adopted as a city ordinance. In each city, nearly all city council members opposed this common sense reform, even though thousands of their constituents overwhelmingly support it.
“These measures will prevent a scandal like that of former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush from happening in the cities it passed in,” stated San Francisco Oaks volunteer organizer Ben Gertner. “Taxpayers should not have to wait for corruption to be uncovered to pass conflict of interest protections.”
The Oaks Project volunteers will be considering their next step, looking at the possibility of a statewide version of the proposition. The Oaks Project will also consider reintroducing their initiative reform measure, SB 1220, which passed out of the State Senate in 1999. The new measure would require disclosure of financial sponsors of initiative ads as well as provide recognition in voter guides for those campaigns that are Volunteer Qualified Initiatives, or VQI
Vista Vote May Be Undone By Politician’s “Poison Pill” In Phony Counter Initiative
After failing to invalidate the popular Prop W through a pre-election lawsuit, the Vista city council hastily put together their own phony reform measure to confuse voters and stop real reform from happening.
“This is cynical politics at its worst,” stated Prop W volunteer organizer Brad Drake. “The taxpayers wanted reform, but they will get none — exactly what the politicians wanted.”
In a final attempt to ensure that none of the reforms contained in Prop W would be enacted, the city politicians inserted a “poison pill” into their initiative. That provision would invalidate Prop W completely if the politician’s measure received just one more vote than Prop W. According to the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, although Prop W received 58% of the vote, the politicianÃƒÂ•s Prop V received slight more.
“We will be reviewing our options as to whether to challenge the ‘poison pill’ clause on legal grounds,” stated Oaks Project Director Paul Herzog.
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 California’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 last year and spearheaded the 1998 drive to lower utility rates for California ratepayers by co-sponsoring Proposition 9.