Nevada County law librarian Lu Mellado would bring propositions, recalls and other blessings of direct democracy to America at large
With the arrival of primary season, one after another of the Democratic hopefuls dreaming of the presidency soon will be banished from the tribe. Even with this glut of candidates, many people are still apathetic, feeling that politicians always represent the interests of business and the wealthy.
Bucking this trend, Nevada County law librarian Lu Mellado has declared himself a write-in candidate for president with a one-issue platform: a federal voter-initiative process, which would allow the American people to pass their own national legislation. “It’s not me as a candidate, but the idea of a national initiative,” he said.
His campaign Web site, “The American People for President” (www.tapfp.org), posts legislation suggested by the public. It has many links to sites about “direct democracy,” which allows citizens to propose legislation by initiative or to approve or reject a law passed by their legislature by referendum.
Mellado wants to give a voice to “the disgruntled, jaded, discouraged American voters,” the 50 percent of the population that didn’t vote in the last presidential election.
Voters in California are well aware of the power of citizen lawmaking. Last year’s recall election brought our state worldwide attention, and Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes by nearly 60 percent, created national momentum for a taxpayer revolt in 1978.
Although the public can propose legislation in 24 states, the United States is one of only five democracies, along with India, Israel, Japan and the Netherlands, that has never held a nationwide vote on an issue of public policy. A recent poll found that 57 percent of Americans support such a national initiative.
“It’s not a new idea,” said Mellado.
Indeed, initiatives, referendums and recalls were used for 400 years in ancient Rome. There, a recall not only canceled an election but also banned the official from the country. Those daring to return were executed.
Studying Switzerland’s initiative and referendum elections, populists and progressives introduced the initiative process to the United States 100 years ago in an attempt to wrest power away from special-interest groups and hand it back to the people.
Then, ballot measures usually pertained to voting rights and issues that were not supported by the moneyed interests of the major parties. Nowadays, they typically refer to social, tax and environmental issues.
According to Mellado, our politicians always have protected the interests of the rich. “The Constitution was not written for women, minorities, slaves, indentured servants and Native Americans,” he said. As evidence, Mellado cites Article I, section 9, of the Constitution, which refers to taxation on slaves: “A tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”
Daily, the economically disenfranchised ply Mellado with questions at the Nevada County Law Library’s Public Law Center, the only self-help legal center in the United States. When the local legal-aid center closed its doors last spring, the Public Law Center, which he helped found, became the only resource for those unable to afford the services of an attorney.
Mellado himself falls into the disenfranchised category. He hasn’t owned a car in six years, doesn’t have health insurance, doesn’t own a TV, rents an apartment and doubts he’ll ever be able to own a home. “I know intimately the need for affordable housing,” he said.
He hadn’t voted for years until 2000, when he voted for Nader. Until then, Mellado felt his vote just didn’t count in a system where politicians “are working for the people who have money.” He quotes 2002 Federal Election Commission data stating that 42 percent of senators and 23 percent of congressional members are millionaires, compared with only 1 percent of the general population.
Bicycling across the country after high-school graduation, Mellado experienced a world far different from his middle-class suburban upbringing in Michigan. He was shocked at how people struggled to survive economically. When he settled in Nevada County 20 years ago, he became an active community volunteer, promoting an alternative local currency and designing a legal curriculum he hopes to institute next year in the high schools.
He champions national policy issues that benefit people, not corporations, such as a living wage, universal affordable health care, a clean environment, fair economic trade, effective campaign-finance reform and “a foreign and military policy that limits the U.S. government from being the bully of the world.”
“Currently,” he said, “these public policies are tied up in congressional committee, politically lobbied and controlled by profit-driven corporate and special interests.”
“What does the Constitution begin with?” he asked rhetorically. “We the people.”
Seeking to promote citizen participation in government, he began researching the idea of a federal initiative and found that former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, had authored the National Initiative for Democracy, which includes a proposed amendment to the Constitution. Supporters include Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Paul Hawken, Julia Butterfly Hill and Howard Zinn.
To help make this idea happen, Mellado decided to go “straight to the top” and declared his candidacy for president, deciding that “Congress won’t do anything” that would curb its power. Though becoming president was never a childhood dream, Mellado thinks he can be “a spark that will hopefully light some flame.”
He denies that he’s an activist, claiming he’s just “a pursuer of my own dreams.”
“With this administration … things are getting worse,” he said, “maybe better for a few.”
Mellado concedes the initiative process isn’t perfect, but he thinks voters are smart enough to make good decisions. However, though California voters historically have approved indebtedness, tax cuts and spending, they rarely have approved new taxes.
The possibility of radical initiatives and “extreme initiative proposals that only benefit a few” concerns him. Moreover he acknowledges that ballot propositions can be wordy and confusing and perhaps should be limited so they don’t affect judicial decisions or tax measures adopted by the Legislature. Rather than voting on myriad small issues and micromanaging the government, he envisions the use of a federal initiative to set broad national policy.
And he thinks the public is ready for more participatory government. At last year’s antiwar protests, the “hundreds of thousands of people making their opinion known” encouraged him. At the same time, he feels that without access to direct governance, the crowds were politically powerless. “Do you think we’d be at war if the choice was ‘Do we invade Iraq or not?'”
“Dreams are the most powerful force on the planet," Mellado said. A former body builder who now sits in the governor’s office probably would agree.