A mockery of democracy:
Corporate America and far-right buy ‘grassroots’ campaigns

Back in July, Judge Charles McCoy dismissed a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles by Taxpayers Against the Governor’s Recall charging widespread fraud in the collection of 1.6 million signatures which forced the special Oct. 7 election on the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis.

But an angry backlash is gathering steam against both the recall and Proposition 54, Ward Connerly’s measure that would outlaw collection of data on race, an attempt to nullify the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding affirmative action.

Both ballot measures have been denounced as a perversion of the original purpose of the recall and ballot proposition laws adopted nearly a century ago under Gov. Hiram Johnson to break the corrupt stranglehold on all levels of government by the Southern Pacific Railroad and other corporate giants. Now these measures are being used by the wealthy to nullify and overturn the will of the people.

In arguing against the recall, attorney Paul R. Kiesel told the court, “This lawsuit challenges the legitimacy of out-of-state professional signature gatherers hiring felons and non-registered voters to gather signatures.” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a San Diego millionaire, plowed nearly $3 million of his own car alarm fortune into the project, paying professional petition circulators $1 per signature to collect the names needed to win ballot status. His “Rescue California” front group brought in Republican Tom Bader, described as a “retired California signature-gathering executive” now living in Missouri, to orchestrate the drive. Even though the recall was driven by cold corporate cash, it is presented in the media as a “grassroots rebellion” by angry Californians against Davis, reelected just 10 months ago.

“This lawsuit contends that the proponents of this recall hired these bounty hunters in order to promote their conservative agenda and stick the California taxpayers with a $30 million to $50 million bill for their special election,” Kiesel charged.

The anti-recall group submitted affadavits to prove their case. In one, William Byrd, a petition gatherer whose real residence is Tacoma, Wash., testified that the company instructed him to register to vote in California using as his address the Travel Lodge in Pomona where they were housing him.

Kim Dickson, a resident of Arizona, was told to register using as her address the Red Roof Inn in Santa Ana where the petition company was putting her up. Judge McCoy brushed all this aside, arguing that he was bound to uphold the “rights” of who those signed the petitions.

There is ample precedent for people going into a state not their own to circulate petitions on vital issues or to get an independent candidate on the ballot. These petitioners are usually volunteers motivated by their commitment to principle. But the ultra-right increasingly depends on for-profit corporations to put its anti-labor, racist propositions on the ballot, a grotesque parody of real “grassroots” activism.

Take for example National Petition Management, Inc., of Roseville, Calif. Headed by Republican entrepreneur Lee Albright, NPM describes itself as a “full-service petition management company” with a “performance record virtually unmatched in the industry.” The NPM web site proclaims, “With our vast experience we are able to assist our clients on a variety of fronts – from qualifying local and statewide measures and conducting voter registration drives to assisting in grassroots signature gathering and one-on-one grassroots contact work … . At NPM, we will take the guesswork out of your campaign and ensure your success. We hire and train signature coordinators and circulators. We verify the validity of signatures.”

It boasts of its role in qualifying Prop. 54 for the ballot. “A financial push at the end of the project helped generate a total of 960,773 signatures, enough to qualify the issue on the March 2, 2004, primary ballot,” it states. Later, Prop. 54 was certified for the Oct. 7 ballot.

Another “client” of NPM was the “Inglewood Committee for Open Competition,” which it describes as “a coalition of Inglewood residents and Wal-Mart stores.” NPM gathered the signatures needed to put a measure on the ballot to reverse a vote by the Inglewood City Council denying Wal-Mart’s application to build a store in the California town.

Another NPM project was “Santa Monicans Fighting Against Irresponsible Regulations.” The NPM blurb reports, “This very volatile issue involved a living wage ordinance passed by the City Council.” NPM brags that they collected the 7,500 signatures for a ballot question to repeal the living wage ordinance despite “strong opposition from unions.”

The ultra-right has used ballot initiatives to advance its agenda since 1978, when Howard Jarvis pushed through Prop. 13, an amendment to the California constitution limiting property taxes. It slashed by 57 percent revenues for public education, libraries, public health and a host of other vital services. In the years that followed, California plunged from first in the nation in the quality of its public schools to near the bottom.

Other right-wing outfits took their cue from Jarvis. In 2001, for example, union-busters in California placed Prop. 226 on the ballot. The so-called “Paycheck Protection” measure was aimed at crippling organized labor by requiring unions to get written permission before union dues could be used for political activities. The AFL-CIO succeeded in defeating it in a hard-fought campaign.

Connerly hired petitioners to put Initiative 200, the deceptively named “Civil Rights Initiative,” on the Washington State ballot in 1998. Voters approved it thinking they were casting a ballot for equal rights. It inflicted a devastating blow on African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color by outlawing affirmative action.

Connerly even hired African Americans from out of state who unwittingly circulated the petition thinking it was a “civil rights” measure. Many quit when they learned the truth. Connerly left them marooned in Seattle.

There are many cases of progressive movements using ballot initiatives to win victories and certainly it is the right of voters to recall corrupt politicians from office. But weary California voters are saying, “Enough!” If the current trend continues to build, this recall as well as Prop. 54 will go down to a well deserved defeat. And voters may read more closely the fine print in the next ballot proposition they are asked to sign.

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com

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The real grassroots mobilization is unmistakable

LOS ANGELES – The right wing has packaged its scheme to recall Gov. Gray Davis as “grassroots.” But from one end of this state to the other, the real grassroots movement is the alliance of unions, civil rights and women’s organizations that is phone-banking and doorbell-ringing to defeat both the recall and the racist Prop. 54.

Nowhere is that movement working with greater energy and determination than here in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, had more than 200 organizers at several events in L.A. and its environs on Sept. 13, when this reporter visited. They included 46 union members who were phone-banking in both English and Spanish in a special phone-bank room.

Five of them took a break to share their views with the World. Paulesparza Adnandalon, an organizer for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11, said, “Fighting this recall is paramount for us because removal of Gov. Davis will put in jeopardy all the gains we have made over the past five years.”

“We are calling predominantly union members and their families. A big majority is against the recall and against Prop. 54.”

Miguel Raya, also a member of HERE Local 11, added, “They brought in a bunch of out-of-town carpetbaggers to put this recall on the ballot. It cost $2.50 per signature. They paid for their meals and lodging. It’s pure money. What does Arnold Schwarzenegger know about running this state? When I talk to people about Schwarzenegger, I tell them: ‘His father was a Nazi.’”

Paula T. White, a member of Service Employees Local 1877, said, “A recall is supposed to take place when an elected official engages in a criminal act. But they haven’t accused Davis of any criminal act. The backers of this recall are undermining the democratic process. Davis was elected fairly just last November.” She blasted Ward Connerly for deceptive packaging of Prop. 54. “When I came here, I thought Prop. 54 was something totally different. The Republicans’ secret weapon is confusing people.”

Freddy Harris, a member of SEIU Local 99, said, “They’ve made California the laughing stock of the nation. What is the sense of a ballot with 135 candidates for governor? The bottom line is that a candidate could win with 15 percent of the vote. Where is the democracy in eight million voting for governor and 1.6 million signing a petition to throw it out?”

Charles Lester, political action director of the L.A. Federation of Labor, told the World, “I honestly believe that what’s happening in California today can be traced back to the 2000 presidential election when the Republicans said: ‘We’ve got to take it at all costs.’ They stole the election in Florida. They want to disenfranchise people in Texas and Colorado.”

The GOP, he said, was enraged by last November’s election in California, “a complete shut-out – not a single Republican won statewide office. This recall is definitely one of their ploys to reverse that.”

He decried Judge McCoy’s decision to throw out the lawsuit on petition fraud. “Many of the petition gatherers were proven to be from out-of-state. There were so many ridiculous things about this recall. What’s the movement in the polls? It’s against the recall and against Prop. 54. All along we’ve said this is not about one politician. It’s about what is good for working people and what we have won in the past five years.”

Earlier that morning, hundreds of SEIU home care workers staged a rally at Griffith Park to launch a “Poor People’s Campaign.” Staffing a joint voter registration and education booth were Neighbor-to-Neighbor Youth Director Elliott Petty, and NAACP Region I Youth Field Director Laini M.H. Coffee. Petty said African American, Latino and other minority enrollment has been hard hit by Prop. 209, the anti-affirmative action measure that passed in 1999.

Passage of Prop. 54, he charged, “would have a disastrous impact on diversity and it would hamper the effort to end racial disparities and equalize educational opportunities.” Neighbor-to-Neighbor and the NAACP are working strenuously on campuses throughout the state for a big student vote against both Prop. 54 and the recall. “I believe we’re making headway,” he said. “Prop. 54 will not make us color-blind. It will just make us blind.”

Coffee said, “This fight against Prop. 54 and against the recall is really a test run for the 2004 elections. If people vote no on recall and no on Prop. 54, it will mean the voting population is paying attention. It’s not only a question of registering people to vote. It’s a question of getting them to come out to the polls and cast their ballots on Oct. 7.”

– Tim Wheeler

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