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Recalling Reagan 

In trying to remove Gov. Ronald Reagan from office, liberal activists spawned the Davis recall and a host of other political ills

Wednesday, Aug 27 2003
When witnessing the pageant of political alienation afflicting our state, I blame the recall. When I see the signature-gathering zealots rubbing their hands together and a movie-star politician posing for fans, I point to the recall. When I consider what's currently wrong with California politics, I think of the unintended consequences of an unwarranted attempt to replace California's governor -- circa 1968.

The effort to remove Ronald Reagan from the California governor's post, which ultimately failed, obtaining only 500,000 of the 740,000 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, was an earnest, well-intentioned effort by self-styled progressives to improve the lives of Californians. And it had awful, unforeseen, long-lasting consequences for our state.

Even though it failed, the effort to recall Reagan galvanized a movement called the People's Lobby, which during its heyday -- from the early- to mid-1970s -- was obsessed with popularizing California's "direct democracy" laws. The group, founded by Los Angeles­area activists with left leanings, invented many of the tools that political consultants now use to run statewide initiative campaigns. The main beneficiaries of those inventions have not been liberal organizations, but the right-leaning individuals and groups that sponsored initiatives such as 1978's tax-cutting Proposition 13, 1990's Proposition 140, which limited the numbers of terms legislators could serve, and this year's attempt to recall Gov. Gray Davis. During the post­People's Lobby era, dozens of other statewide ballot measures gained voter approval, severely limiting elected officials' ability to govern, and contributing to the state's current budget problems.

I'm a Reagan-hating Democrat born and bred, but I do believe that California would have been better off if well-meaning progressives had not tried to give one to the Gipper.

I can only hope the right-wing extremists behind the current recall live to likewise suffer from their handiwork. Now there's a ballot initiative I could get behind: A Measure to Apply the Law of Unintended Consequences to Gloating Republicans.

Although referendum, initiative, and recall are most closely associated with former Gov. Hiram Johnson and the 1911 law that established them in California, direct democracy didn't really take off here until the People's Lobby got hold of it.

The People's Lobby campaign against Reagan began benignly, wonderfully even. Ed Koupal, an anti-establishmentarian used-car salesman from Roseville who was angry at Reagan's efforts to loot higher education and close facilities for mental patients, led the removal effort. Even though the attempt to force a recall election failed by several hundred thousand signatures, Koupal's People's Lobby was emboldened, and it sponsored a raft of early-1970s, left-wing petition drives. Some of the ballot measures thus authorized were successful, and some were not, but they resurrected and energized California's previously moribund direct-democracy laws.

The People's Lobby turned the art of drafting propositions, gathering signatures, and garnering media attention into a technological science. Petition card-tables at strip malls, snappy signature-gathering sales pitches, slick initiative media campaigns -- that's all Ed Koupal. But he and the People's Lobby spawned something else, too: Soon, wealthy gadflies, corporate lobbyists, and a cottage industry of consultants, signature-gatherers, and press agents began learning from those early initiative-hyping methods. For example, Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, backers of 1978's Proposition 13, which limited municipalities' ability to raise property taxes, attended Koupal's direct-democracy seminars.

Since the People's Lobby brought modern campaign techniques to the initiative process, the average number of statewide ballot measures passed per political season has increased threefold. And during that time, laws enacted by voters have cut to the core of the way government is run, transforming elected representatives' ability to tax, to spend, even to stay in office. The explosion of government-by-petition in California has also created a corrosive initiative-industrial complex, in which companies dedicated to signature-gathering, legal services, and political consulting conceive and implement campaigns to place initiatives on the ballot.

Ahead of their time, People's Lobby leaders became obsessed with campaign finance reform. They helped pass a major campaign initiative in 1974, the year before Koupal died. But it was too little, too late, and has done almost nothing to stanch the use of initiative and recall laws by anyone with $2 million to spend on signature-gatherers and television ads and a yen to throw a wrench into the California political machine.

"In the days we were doing it, we were one of those grass-roots groups. You had a pulse of the people, and the people were actually pissed off enough to sacrifice time and energy to get signatures and support an initiative," says former Koupal aide Dwayne Hunn, who is working on a biography of Ed Koupal and his wife, Joyce. "Things have changed a lot since then."

Simultaneously a pioneer of California petition politics and a staunch liberal, Hunn finds himself of mixed mind regarding this summer's political season. "Personally, I'm going to vote against the recall. But what I think is healthy about this is that you've got 135 potential candidates out there; 70 or 80 of them probably haven't been too politically engaged. You've got all of them debating issues. Instead of cops and robbers leading the news, politics is leading the news," says Hunn, a former high school teacher. "I think having this recall is good. It's going to force the debate, and people will get a little smarter. It will push the country's IQ level forward when it comes to politics."

Perhaps it will even make us smart enough to fulfill Ed Koupal's dream of direct democracy tempered by restraints on political spending. And this time around, those restraints should apply -- specifically -- to political campaigns that pay signature-gatherers to promote initiatives and recalls meant to short-circuit the workings of a messy but time-tested form of government that most of America uses, most of the time. It is known as representative democracy, and it is something California needs to go back to, if it is to have much of a future.

To test the general thesis that the gubernatorial recall had made California politics into a festival of phoniness, I attended a political rally earlier this month at 16th and Mission streets. There, Sophie McGee, a brash twentysomething with fashionably straightened hair, surveyed the crowd of sign-toters and television cameramen, turned to a girlfriend, and scowled. "I wish they'd turn the cameras on me; I'd tell them that's not what the Mission looks like," McGee said. "They should get the heroin addicts out from up in the hotels. They just trucked those people in so it would look good."

McGee had a point about the otherworldly nature of the gathering, a choreographed "inner-city" campaign stop for gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington. The event immediately followed a California leftist summit at the Mission Street offices of the Global Exchange human rights advocacy group, where Huffington and Green Party candidate Peter Miguel Camejo reached a vague agreement to "work together" to motivate left voters. Huffington, in an executive's pantsuit, tight-fitting patterned blouse, and dagger-toed pumps, impressed in person both as a prettier version of Raisa Gorbachev and as an unlikely galvanizer of the left. (After all, she's the same millionaire Greek socialite who helped her former husband spend $30 million trying to be a Republican U.S. senator and subsequently became a muse of the Gingrich Revolution.)

After the summit ended I got into an elevator a couple of seconds before Huffington's entourage. She crowded in ahead of her handlers, momentarily sized me up, then gripped my palm sideways and squeezed.

"Ohmigawd," I realized, "a soul brother handshake."

Moments later she stepped outside to the 16th and Mission BART station, where a handler thrust into her arms a 4-year-old African-American girl and told Huffington the child's name was Jasmine.

"By the time Jasmine goes to California schools," Huffington said into a bullhorn, "there should be schools worth going to."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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