How to squander the grassroots

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
June 23, 2021

How to squander the grassroots

From the beginning, political insiders questioned the wisdom of supporting a Governor Newsom recall campaign. But when Orrin Heatlie was picking up the pieces after the first recall effort, he recognized something that eluded most experts: From scratch, with absolutely no professional or financial support, a volunteer army had formed and gathered 352,271 signed petitions. This accomplishment has no precedent.

What has happened since March of 2020 has made history. Heatlie went on to mobilize this volunteer army to try again to gather 1.5 million signed petitions. Taking into account the inevitable share of duplicates or invalid petitions, they ended up turning in more than 2.1 million signed petitions. Newsom is now fighting for his political life. He’s one super fire, major power brownout, or French Laundry imbroglio away from retirement.

How Heatlie’s recall campaign evolved is a textbook example of how grassroots movements and political professionals can work together. Anne Dunsmore, a fundraiser and campaign expert with decades of experience in California politics, began assisting the recall effort in the summer of 2020. Relying on direct mail to complement Heatlie’s volunteer signature gatherers, Dunsmore’s committee spent $3.6 million, while Heatlie’s committee raised not quite $1.0 million.

Everything about this was not supposed to happen. Heatlie was not supposed to be able to muster thousands of volunteers who manned booths in parking lots, knocked on doors, recruited business owners, and networked with everyone they knew to gather well over a million signatures. Dunsmore’s gamble that direct mail would be more cost effective than paid signature gatherers had never been tried, but it worked.

Anything Can Happen in 2022

If a hybrid coalition of volunteers and professionals can force a gubernatorial recall election in California by gathering the required 1.5 million signed petitions, they can do any initiative. For November 2022, qualifying an initiative that amends the California constitution “only” requires 997,139 signatures. A new statute, via initiative, only requires 623,212 signatures.

What Heatlie and Dunsmore proved was that a combination of volunteers and direct mail can deliver signed and verified petitions at a cost of $3.00 each. This changes the game. With rare exceptions, the only way ballot initiatives have ever been qualified is by hiring paid signature gatherers. The lowest quotes they offer these days is $4.00 per signature. But it’s wishful thinking for a campaign to think they’ll get to the finish line at that price.

Taking into account new laws making it harder to hire signature gatherers, competition among campaigns to hire them, “blocking” campaigns by opponents of any decent reform initiative, and surcharges that are inevitable as deadlines approach, expect to spend $6.00 per signature to qualify an initiative. The recall campaign has cut the price to qualify an initiative in half, and with what they’ve learned, that price could drop further.

But how will this new power find expression? The deadline for filing initiatives for title and summary with the California Secretary of State is fast approaching. By September of this year, because there is a 15 month cycle from filing an initiative to actually seeing it on the ballot, if proponents don’t come up with ideas, vet them with attorneys and file them, 2022 will come and go. The landscape is not encouraging.

How to Squander the Power of the Grassroots

It’s possible that nothing of consequence will be filed by the August 26 deadline, and hence, not one initiative of consequence will appear on the November 2022 ballot. To-date, various proponents have quietly not only filed but qualified three initiatives: Legalize Sports Betting on American Indian LandsChanges to Medical Malpractice Lawsuits, and a Flavored Tobacco Products Ban Referendum. Another initiative campaign has submitted 870,000 signatures for verification and will probably be on the ballot, the California Plastic Waste Reduction Regulations Initiative.

Meanwhile, cleared for circulation of petitions are three more, the Limits on Public Health Emergency Powers InitiativeChild Custody Determination by Jury, and the Environmental and Sustainability Education. And filed for title and summary and awaiting clearance for circulation, so far, an initiative that will Prohibit Slavery and Involuntary Servitude.

Some of these initiatives, such as those on the topics of medical malpractice or child custody, address important issues. For the people affected by them, they matter. It’s good that Californians will have a chance to vote on them. But they will not improve the lives of all Californians. Others, such as the ones that require more “environmental and sustainability education,” or “prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude,” are posturing inanities, put forward despite California’s K-12 curricula already awash in eco-terror indoctrination, and despite slavery being – surprise! – already illegal in California.

One of these initiatives, however, bears closer examination, because it is an example of how grassroots energy can easily be squandered. According to the text of the “Limits on Public Health Emergency Powers Initiative,” government officials will not be able to enforce public health quarantines to stop the spread of communicable diseases during a pandemic.

This is an emotional issue, and for good reason. During the COVID-19 pandemic, which may or may not be behind us, unforgivable mistakes were made by public health officials. Most notably, early treatment protocols were not only dismissed by the authorities and a complicit media, but were actively suppressed. If the money and energy that went into developing vaccines had gone into developing early stage therapies, hundreds of thousands of American might be alive today, and we wouldn’t face pressure campaigns for annual “jabs” and “masking” for the rest of our lives.

But the failure of America’s health institutions, for which the most charitable explanation is murderous, venal pandering to pharmaceutical corporations, does not justify taking away emergency powers to contain a pandemic. What if there’s another one, even more deadly and even more contagious than COVID-19? It won’t matter if proponent Steve Clark recruits Orrin Heatlie’s army and gets this initiative on the ballot, and it won’t matter if, against the odds, voters approve the measure. If something worse than COVID-19 comes along, a judge will strike down any curbs on quarantine authority in an instant, possibly for very good reason. Powerful message, potent symbols. Useless in reality.

Expect more of this. Initiatives that offer perfection to the true believers, but are too much for the electorate to ever support. Initiatives, dead on arrival, that nonetheless arouse the passions of volunteer activists who are justifiably fed up with incremental solutions. The pet projects of someone with a few extra dollars, dangled in front of consultants desperate for work. The grandiose, Quixotic schemes of billionaires, a gold mine for consultants, but a complete waste of money.

That’s how you squander the grassroots.

What is needed on California’s ballot in 2022 are initiatives that will reform public education, end public funding of divisive critical race theory, restore the ability of local governments to make their own zoning decisions free of state interference, guarantee a resilient and abundant supply of water and energy to Californians, properly manage the forests, get addicts, psychotics and criminals off the streets, deregulate housing, and repair and upgrade core infrastructure. Those are issues that affect everyone.

Getting the grassroots fired up and carrying petitions for these causes, formulated judiciously so they’re not only qualified for the November ballot, but approved by voters, is the challenge facing activists that want to fix California. Thanks to the presence of literally tens of thousands of organized, trained volunteers, the opportunity is here as never before. And time is running out.

This article originally appeared on the website California Globe.

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