Our sickness, our cure: Why we need Prop 15 (Fair Elections)


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Is this the kind of government we want to leave for our kids and grandkids?

Are you sick and tired of our California government being held hostage to the special interests – the public employees unions, the prison-industrial complex, the utilities and Indian casinos?

Are you sick and tired of the billionaires and multi-millionaires buying their way into office knowing that nobody else can match their war chests – the Whitmans and Fiorinas, the Bloombergs and Schwarzeneggers?

Are you sick and tired of watching years-long grass-roots movements to improve our lives either get crushed or co-opted by the giant corporations – health care reform written by the insurance and drug industries;  financial “reform” stymied or watered down by the banks and credit card companies;  environmental regulations written by the polluters themselves?

On June 8, you and I can do something about all of this by voting YES on Proposition 15, a modest but crucial step to begin limiting the power of money in our government.

1.  Are politicians bad people?

Of course not.  We voted for them and sent them to do our work because we trusted them and they stood for some of the same things we stand for.  But the high costs of political campaigns force officeholders – and those who want to run – to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to raise funds, often from sources they’d be better off avoiding.

And as Arnold Schwarzenegger said when he was first running for Governor, supposedly as a sort of reformer, “Any of those kinds of real big, powerful special interests, if you take money from them, you owe them something.” (Little did we know at the time that this statement was a blueprint for his own intentions.)

One of the lamer arguments I hear against fair elections / clean money is that we’re somehow rewarding the bad behavior of politicians.  No, we’re simply freeing them up to do the job we chose them and hired them for: making the government and economy work for you and me.

2. Proposition 15 is a MODEST reform that won’t cost YOUR cheap ass a dime.

First off, let’s dispense with the idea that Prop 15 is some kind of tax – the opposition’s favorite lie to scare you away from it.  Prop 15 is completely funded by an increase in the annual fees lobbyist have to pay to in order to have special access to our representatives’ ear.  Currently that fee is a laughable TWELVE-and-a-half DOLLARS.  Each year. Prop 15 would bring that up to $350 a year – which is what most of them make in one hour.

(A few lobbyists have told me personally that the money is no big deal.  But their union – the IGA – is leading the opposition to Prop 15 on principle, because it will lead to an erosion of lobbyists’ power, and the power of those who can afford lobbyists.)

The proposal is modest in other ways – it only covers the race for Secretary of State, which makes sense as that is the office that oversees and regulates lobbyists. In order to qualify for these campaign funds, a candidate needs to collect a $5 contribution from a specified number of registered voters (just to show that they are a serious candidate, so we don’t start funding every Steve Rocco and Stan Fiala that pop up.  For more boring details on how the plan will work, click here.)

Furthermore it’s a “pilot project,” for just the 2014 and 2018 elections;  if we decide for any reason it’s not working out, it will sunset after that.  By starting to collect the lobbyist fees this year, we have four years for the kitty to be plenty big enough for the 2014 election.  

3. BUT it’s a crucial first step toward much greater reform in the future.

Not many people know this, but in 1988 crooked politicians Willie Brown and Governor Deukmejian managed to sneak a sentence into the California Constitution outlawing any public financing of elections;  the sordid tale is here. The passage of Prop 15 will invalidate that sentence, making it possible for us to bring fair elections to other races when we want to.

For example, the insurance commissioner race could be funded by just a slight increase on insurance companies’ fees that those giant firms would hardly notice; but we would be guaranteed a commissioner that was not in their pocket.  Likewise with the Board of Equalization races.

You could decide you wanted to start up a Fair Election type system in your own town or county – for city council or something, and you could run yourself – with enough public support – and not have to kiss up to developers and public employees unions!

In the future when California’s economy takes the inevitable turn toward the better, we may decide to bring the Fair Elections idea to the Governor’s race, or others.  The fact is, this is not an expensive prospect at all, in order to have responsive honest governance.  If every statewide race were covered by public financing, that would cost only $6 per year for each Californian over 18. That’s for us to finally have democracy in this state – now that’s something worth leaving our kids and grandkids!

4.  It’s worked in other states and cities, and they’re lovin’ it!

Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut have all instituted Fair Elections for all statewide offices – Maine and Arizona since the year 2000.  There was resistance at first, especially from Republicans (who “fear change?”) but after a little time everybody swears by it.  And even though the systems are voluntary, at this point 85% of Maine officeholders, and 81% of Arizona’s, chose to run as Fair Election candidates.  That’s from all parties.

And are there concrete results for the citizens of these states?  Hell yes.  Within a couple years of electing clean legislatures, Maine had a program for re-importing low-cost drugs from Canada – something that would never have been possible with the death grip Big Pharma keeps on traditional candidates.  Arizona as well (whom we’ll look at again in a minute) managed to get through a low-cost prescription drug bill.

Other states have started modestly like we are, with just one office.  North Carolina for example decided to start their Fair Elections experiment in 2008 with the office of Insurance Commissioner, and Wayne Goodwin managed to win a solid victory while refusing campaign contributions from any special interests.   Within less than a year, Commissioner Goodwin determined that NC auto insurance companies had been illegally jacking up their rates, and managed a refund to NC citizens of $50 million.

This couldn’t have, wouldn’t have happened if Goodwin were elected with insurance money;  and if it had the insurance companies would have BURIED him come re-election time.

5.  Yes, Arizona has clean elections too!

Some Fair Elections activists are liberal types who furrow their brows and say “What about Arizona – look at what they’re doing to their immigrant population – should we even be bragging about their clean elections?”  And I say, “Leave it to me – I can address that!”

First let me say that of course I’m against SB 1070, I think it’s unconstitutional, intrusive, un-American, a waste of law enforcement resources, and unavoidably racist.  But I know this blog is read by a lot of supporters of SB 1070, and I want you lot to understand that:

SB 1070 would not have been possible without Fair Elections. It is not in the interest of any big-money commercial interests of Arizona, and if their candidates were in office they would have prevented it.  It was a pure, desperate expression of the desires of Arizona voters, as wrong and exaggeratedly fearful as they may have been.  And so, in the words of that old chant, we have to look at SB 1070 and say, “This is what democracy looks like!”

Two more thoughts about SB 1070:

  • The silver lining is, it’s likely to turn out to be the impetus for the nationwide Comprehensive Immigration Reform we’ve needed for so long;
  • and it also means more Arizona Hispanics need to get out and vote, for their own interests!

6.  Peroration

Our Founding Fathers would have been scandalized at the exaggerated power big money and corporations have over the democratic system they created for us.  The writings of Jefferson and Madison are chock full of dire warnings against exactly the sort of corrupt system we’ve allowed our nation to slide into – especially after the scandalous Supreme Court decision “People United” which if anything is going to open the flood gates of money even wider.

As you’ve seen, the path from Proposition 15 to a full Fair Elections system for our posterity is a long one of at least a decade;  we’ve gotta keep our “eyes on the prize” like the soldier with the thousand-yard stare.  But it’s an integral part of the Revolution for more democracy that our Founding Fathers began, which continued with the War against Slavery, Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights movement.  This is OUR turn now, the struggle to free our democracy from the clutches of big money.  Let’s not let them down now.  Our Founding Fathers OR our kids and grandkids.  VOTE YES ON PROP 15!

Here’s Lawrence Lessig:


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.