Armed with democracy
Longtime local activist returns to California with lessons on how to restore power to the people
In these times of shrinking civil liberties, unadulterated influence of political contributions and widening inequities between the rich and poor, those pushing against the tide seem to face a long and difficult road.
Among those taking this path is Jim Shultz, a soft-spoken former Sacramento consumer lobbyist who has been active in political struggles for the last 30 years. He urges everyone to become active citizens, and believes that by tapping into the potent, undervalued tool known as democracy, some of our lost power can be regained.
“Active citizenship is a bold act of naivete, believing that one person can make a difference and acting on that faith,” said Shultz, head of the Democracy Center, which was founded in 1992 in San Francisco. “The alternative is to do nothing, and doing nothing is a recipe for giving away all our real power.”
Shultz pointed to the many success stories of committed individuals working to make a difference. “It is what won gun control, smaller class size, gay civil rights and standards for cleaner air.”
He has not only dedicated his life to social and economic justice, but also guides others committed to social change on how to be more effective. The key, he said, is to understand the basic tools of democratic activism and know how to use them wisely.
“Understanding public issues, be they the price of energy or the assault on our environment, are not rocket science,” he said. “But they take some time and attention to understand.”
Those who know Shultz praise him as a pragmatic idealist. “Jim always had innovative ideas and knew how to deliver,” said Lenny Goldberg, a lobbyist with the Utility Reform Network who worked with Shultz for 20 years.
Shultz, who moved to Bolivia in 1998, has worked with numerous community and nonprofit groups, from Consumers Union in California to poor Bolivian protesters. He has discovered that the challenges activists face around the globe are remarkably similar.
“It is a task to become an active citizen regardless of culture and issue,” he said. And it entails knowing the ropes and how to turn battle losses into opportunities.
Activists need to understand the political structure in which they are working. They must overcome fears of inadequacy, organize and know who has the authority to deliver the goods. And when the political winds are unfavorable, they need to remember that their job is to remind the public and people in power there is a dissenting view.
Many of the basics of democracy and the skills and strategies Shultz honed over his three decades of political activism are detailed in a guide he recently wrote, The Democracy Owners Manual, a Practical Guide to Changing the World. The new book aims to help advocates—neophyte and seasoned—navigate the political landscape, figure out whom to try and influence, how to muster resources and create allies.
“This book seeks to inspire and strengthen activism that aims to right the scales back toward equality, to help those with less power get more,” the author said.
One of the examples Shultz gives is the California health-care activists’ battle in the mid-1980s against the deadly practice by private hospitals of turning away emergency patients who lacked health insurance, known as “patient dumping.” They mustered broad support and media attention and were responsible for a state law that forbids rejecting critically ill patients. Shultz noted the campaign also accomplished much more. It brought together consumer, health and labor groups that later won prenatal care and consumer protection from HMO victories.
Shultz’s first taste of activism began at the age of 14, when he joined protests against the Vietnam War. It was not until a teacher asked him if he wanted to make a difference that he realized his calling. He volunteered to work on the unsuccessful presidential campaign of George McGovern, who advocated for social justice. Later, Shultz went to the Capitol because he believed the best way to fight for public interest causes was in the political arena.
His first job in Sacramento was as an intern in Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy’s office in 1977, the latter half of Governor Jerry Brown’s first term. Later Shultz worked as a legislative staff member and helped create Mothers Against Drunken Drivers (MADD), after meeting Candy Lightner from Sacramento. Lightner, whose young daughter was killed by a drunken driver, wanted “to make something positive out of something horrible.”
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the state Capitol was a far different place—philosophically and physically. “It was a time in which it was cool to be working at the state Capitol, there was a vibrancy and energy that you noticed in the little things,” Shultz recalled.
The seat of state government was more informal and accessible. Legislative hearings were held in prefab trailers because the Capitol was being renovated and at noon, the lawns were covered with legislative staff eating their lunches.
With time, Shultz became disillusioned with his job. One day he realized he was spending an inordinate amount of time on a bill that did nothing but reduce state paperwork. Watching the corrupting influence money had on lawmakers also left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Money froze certain people and issues out of the process,” Shultz said. And those were the days before fund-raising became a critical part of lawmakers’ jobs and the money involved was a fraction of what it is today.
Shultz began lobbying for the pro-consumer group Common Cause, which was one of a small number of public interest groups working in Sacramento in the mid-1980s. But what forever changed him and opened his eyes to the impact of U.S. policies was a trip to Nicaragua in 1986 at the height of the U.S.-funded Contra war with a group from the Capitol.
Seeing the destruction wrought by a war promoted by the U.S. and supported by Americans’ tax dollars was deeply disturbing. “The issues were so raw and the stakes were so high,” Shultz said. Hundreds of people were being killed while many in the U.S. were oblivious to the destruction.
Shultz found himself moving farther and farther away from Sacramento. In 1991, he and his wife worked as volunteers in an orphanage in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The next year he founded the Democracy Center and in 1998 moved to Bolivia.
Two years ago, Shultz became involved with protesters fighting the privatization of Cochabamba’s water system by a subsidiary of the San Francisco-based Bechtel, Aquas del Tunari, which caused rates to soar. Impoverished residents, who had to choose between water and food, took to the streets and were fired upon by Bolivian soldiers, according to Shultz. A 17-year-old boy was killed and more than a hundred others wounded. Subsequently, Bechtel pulled out but filed a claim against South America’s poorest country for $25 million, claiming that was its expected profit.
Although the trouble that hit the small Andean nation is thousands of miles away, Shultz said ignoring it is at our peril. “What happens outside the U.S. not only has implications for what will happen inside the U.S. down the line, but we should pay attention to the harm our corporations are inflicting around the world.”
To drive the point even closer to home, he noted Californians got a sampling during last year’s energy debacle of the risk of having their lives and economy in the hands of unfettered corporations. “The energy crisis showed how exposed they are to greed.”
And greed, like many of the free market’s excesses, is something people can help keep in check by actively participating in democracy, which Shultz calls the tool to more justice, more freedom and more equality.