By the people

It’s the voters who have reformed California government, but who knew?

Illustration By B.Z.

I am not one of those self-deluded journalists who claims “apathy” causes people to not vote. Most people stay home out of active disdain, not apathy. Voters actively disdain the politicians as well as the media—and they really, really disdain the special interests, which voters realize have more pull with the media and the politicians than they do.

This very active disdain can be channeled into something powerful in California because voters have the delightful ability to put government reform on the ballot—politicians and the media be damned.

Our power will play a big role in November as we vote on Proposition 62, to give California the “open primary”—that is, the right to cross political lines to vote for anybody we wish. Another government reform may loom large in 2005, in a possible special election promoted by Ted Costa of People’s Advocate, who hopes to stop politicians from creating “safe seats” and uncompetitive elections—a threat to our democracy that most voters don’t even know is going on.

But before we talk about the future, let’s look at what voters have accomplished so far in reforming California government.

Over the anguished objections of politicians and a generally furious media, voters pushed through “three strikes, and you’re out” in criminal justice, Proposition 13, term limits on elected leaders and the ban on racial quotas for public college admissions. And a lot more.

You wouldn’t know it from coverage of these issues, but each of these major reforms has been a success.

Let that sink in. How often do you see media calling Proposition 13 a success? Or the ban on racial quotas? Or three strikes? Or term limits?

I didn’t think so.

Proposition 13, hated by most media and politicians, stopped the insane practice of letting politicians tax people based on skyrocketing home values. Property taxes went crazy in the 1970s even though the often elderly homeowners did not benefit from the rise in the paper value of their home. Proposition 13 stopped politicians who were quite literally taxing people out of their homes.

Yet, a wall of lies has been built throughout the years about how Proposition 13 “decimated” funding for government and schools. Look up Proposition 13 and “decimated” on newspapers’ Web sites.

The truth? After we approved Proposition 13 in 1978, the government entities that had been squeezing longtime homeowners had to find other tax sources. And they did. Voters even helped, by approving new ways of funding public endeavors. The passage of Proposition 98, for instance, dramatically boosted school funding. Government spending has shot up since Proposition 13, not down. For example, in the post-Proposition 13 era, per-classroom spending in California’s public schools has skyrocketed, even in constant dollars, adjusted for inflation.

And take term limits. You’ve heard term limits gave us “inexperienced” politicians who can’t fight the clever, longtime lobbyists. There’s not a shred of evidence that’s happened. Our longtime “experienced” legislators dreamed up many of California’s worst laws. One example: California’s disastrous energy deregulation. As we later learned, it wasn’t “deregulation” at all. It was ghostwritten by Southern California Edison lobbyists and others, working closely with our old guard, “experienced” politicians who still dominated the Legislature at that time.

Nor are the newbies elected to Sacramento any less “experienced” than the long-timers. Many, if not most, of the newbies were longtime city-council members or county supervisors. We’d be better off if the new politicians were truly “inexperienced.” Yet, journalists constantly attack term limits, and disingenuously so: They have to work that much harder to find new sources every time Sacramento’s body politic turns over.

And look at our halt to racial preferences in college admissions. The media keep saying minorities have been shut out since Proposition 209. The truth is that Proposition 209 has been a boon for minorities. It has forced our backward high schools to start doing their job for once, by offering college-prep courses to black and Latino students so they can actually prepare for college, instead of pushing unprepared kids into college using quotas.

In the state university system—good schools like the California State Universities at Sacramento and Northridge—black and Latino enrollment has now surged by roughly 3,000 kids, according to the enrollment report released in 2003. Equally important, California’s worst high schools no longer can cover up their outrageous failure to offer college-prep courses to disadvantaged kids. You can thank California voters, who ignored the media and politicians.

Before Proposition 209, California colleges sneakily lured successful, black, middle-class kids from other states to pump up their quotas. These and other practices helped to mask the practice of high schools widely failing to offer college prep to our own black and Latino students. You can thank the guilt-ridden media and politicians, so enamored of “affirmative action” for that. But voters somehow saw through it.

Three strikes? I voted against this measure, because I don’t like the explosion in our prison population. Drug offenders should get a solid chance at in-depth treatment before we imprison them. Yet, three strikes is working, in many other very important ways, even though you hear almost nothing from the media except stories of guys sent up because they stole socks from K-Mart.

The truth is that three strikes is effectively putting away hardened career criminals in droves. California’s hard-core neighborhoods are getting cleaned up because three strikes removes predators from their streets. It’s happened in Watts, Oakland and East Palo Alto—places where journalists and politicians don’t live. Yet, on the Internet, you need a magnifying glass to find the articles about how three strikes is breathing new life into California’s grittiest neighborhoods.

Three strikes, term limits, Proposition 13, Proposition 209 and so many other major reforms show how adept California voters are at cleaning up unworkable government when the politicians are too gutless to do it.

So, now we come to the latest government cleanup, the open primary on the November ballot. This movement began with the recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003, but now it moves into phase two. An open primary lets any voter cross party lines to vote for a candidate they prefer from an opposing party, much as we did when we elected Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. But in a normal election primary, when a registered Democrat goes to the polls, he or she can select only a Democrat. Same for registered Republicans.

The open-primary idea may sweep the West. An almost identical measure is on the Washington-state ballot, and Oregon reformers are considering doing it two years from now.

In fact, Californians already approved the open primary, in 1996, by a near landslide vote of 59.5 percent. But the California Democratic Party, later joined by the Republicans, went to court. How dare the voters cross party lines to vote for an opposing candidate! The nerve of some people!

On largely technical grounds, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out California’s open primary—an action that also wiped out the longtime open primary in Washington state, where furious voters now are going to the ballot to replace the law shot down by the Supreme Court. Yet, the Supreme Court showed great wisdom. The court realized that the Democrats and Republicans were trying to reduce choice in California. So, the Supreme Court wrote up a roadmap that advises California and Washington in how to fix their open-primary laws so they will survive legal challenges.

Those rewrites suggested by the Supreme Court are on the California and Washington ballots in November.

Now, all hell is about to break loose. Members of the Republican Party, Democratic Party and even Green Party have met in California to cook up a fear campaign to stop the open primary. Entrenched interests are pouring in money, horrified that elections may become less predictable and less controllable. Poor babies.

But, worst of all for the Democratic and Republican parties in California, the open primary will draw moderate and swing voters back into elections. What a threat to two parties long controlled by extremists in California. The parties realize that moderate and swing voters ushered in every government shakeup in the past 25 years, and voters already back Proposition 62 by 59 percent.

If approved, the open primary will attract moderate politicians—i.e., normal people—to run for office again in California. We no longer will be stuck with the hard-right and hard-left candidates who’ve mucked up Sacramento for the past decade.

Opponents naturally predict disaster. They say it’s “Louisiana-style” voting—and you know how corrupt things are in Louisiana. Shawn Steel, the former chairman of the California Republican Party, has even invoked the racist David Duke—“He was elected in Louisiana”—to spread fear. Fear was used by entrenched interests to fight Proposition 209 (Racist!), Proposition 13 (Decimated!), term limits (Inexperienced!) and so on. It failed.

Nick Tobey, author of Proposition 62, chuckles over the “Louisiana” charge. Tobey noted that California’s closed primaries “helped elect a legislator from the [Ku Klux Klan], numerous John Birch Society members” and other unpalatables. Our closed primary also helped elect Sacramento legislators who, once in office, were convicted of corruption and went to prison for years.

To ensure passage, Schwarzenegger needs to back this reform. “It will be guaranteed passage if the governor backs Proposition 62, so we very much hope he will endorse it before September 1,” said Tobey.

This won’t be the only time the people seek the governor’s help. Schwarzenegger should back Costa’s plan to wipe out “safe districts” that prevent election competition. He also should push hard for a part-time Legislature.

We can clean up California, but it will be far easier if the people don’t have to do it alone, as they have almost every single time.