Victory in California!

Wolf Pac Victory! (Graphic Credit Todd Erickson)
Wolf Pac Victory! (Graphic Credit Todd Erickson)

Just last week California became the second state in the nation, following Vermont, to call for an Article V Constitutional Convention in order to address the issue of money in politics.

There are two ways to amend the Constitution. One of them is introducing and passing legislation through Congress — something they do stupendously. Or two thirds of the state legislatures can call for a constitutional convention where three fourths of the states must ratify any amendments to the Constitution. Harvard Professor, scholar, and activist Lawrence Lessig has argued in support of a Constitutional Convention.

On June 23, the California State Senate voted to adopt such a resolution and in doing so became the second state in a historic effort to unravel the influence of capital on Congress and our republic.

Assembly Member Mike Gatto (D) of the 43rd district in Los Angeles initially introduced the resolution, AJR-1 (or Assembly Joint Resolution 1) on December 3rd, 2012. However, the bill was almost immediately sidelined in committee and from there it did not seem as though it would ever see the light of day again.

But that is not the beginning of this story. What started everything in motion was that Cenk Uygur, in conjunction with his popular online news show, “The Young Turks” decided that they were fed up and would not take it anymore! They decided to put together an organization of people from all across the political spectrum all with the same dream of having free fair and open elections. In order to convey how dissatisfied and determined the group was, they adopted the name, Wolf-PAC. That’s where it all started, with the people.

The people at Wolf-PAC met with Assemblyman Gatto in 2012 and because Gatto was sympathetic he introduced the bill. However, he did not have the political capital to fight for it, and there were heavy interests against it with only minimal organizing supporting the bill. It was easily sidelined. This is how the bill stayed until early 2013.

What had happened in the intervening year? Wolf-PAC became a serious force to be reckoned with. Cenk was extremely successful at recruiting people through his online news show, which is where I became affiliated with the organization as a volunteer. In the year between when the bill was sidelined and when it started on its way through committees to the floor a popular movement materialized at the grassroots level. The type of which, in my opinion, we have not seen in the United States since the Populist party of the early 1900’s.

The organization is bare bones. It only had one or two employees to begin with, Mike Monetta, the National Director of Organizing was the only one I knew of personally. He put together online training seminars that could be easily administered once a volunteer had been through the training themselves. More like rabbits than wolves, our ranks multiplied. Ordinary people who had little or in some cases no political experience stepped up to the plate to become the leaders of this movement. One in particular, Alison Hartson, is a school teacher who initially started training other volunteers, then became a regional organizer, and would eventually rise to the position of statewide organizer for California!

Under Alison’s leadership (and a few others) California citizens put on the full court press. We contacted legislators directly, met with their staff, and representatives and lobbied on behalf of the bill. I personally met with my state Senator at the time and asked him to vote yes on the bill (he did!). We organized phone banks to people inside of the representatives districts and on a human level explained why they should be concerned about money in politics. We asked that they contact their representative. It’s extremely easy to conduct outreach when 90% of the population agrees with the reason you’re calling.

In addition to organizing phone banks, Wolf-PAC CA organized a rally at the capital during the Judiciary Committee where they had roughly 60 volunteers come and express support for the resolution. Nobody dared to speak out against the bill. It was an amazing turn of events. The bill went from being effectively silenced without ever seeing the floor of either chamber for discussion to sailing through committees like a seagull over the ocean.

Volunteers of Wolf-PAC could be heard rejoicing immediately after the vote, much to the chagrin of legislators. Cenk, of cooooourse, covered the success of the bill on The Young Turks. And with that — there are two down and thirty two to go. One more in the books for the good guys. Many other states already have resolutions introduced, and many more are on the way.

These were my immediate reflections upon hearing the news. I am supremely impressed at the ability of everyone involved as citizens to recognize the need for action and to answer the call. Let it be known that civic duty and social responsibility in the United States is not dead, it is alive and well!

The organizing and leadership skills displayed by Mike, Alison, Kathy, Will etc. is reminiscent of the populist movement. This was a true grassroots effort embarked upon predominantly by people who are not and in some cases have never been involved in politics. People who saw a fundamental problem in our system and assembled as is their first amendment right to receive the ultimate redress of their grievance. Not only did this group get a bill introduced into the legislature — which is an impressive feat in and of itself – Wolf Pac CA (and those from other states that helped out) managed to get a resolution passed in both chambers! We are the populists of our day, and we are making moves to reinstate one of the most important pillars of government — free, fair, and open elections.
I remember a conference call, probably a year or so ago, where Alison playfully posed the hypothetical question, “what you do to celebrate AJR1 being passed by both chambers?” At the time, it seemed so far away — an unattainable dream, an oasis in our desert of desperation. Now that we have climbed to mountain top, now that the promise land is still 32 states and a convention away but close enough to see there is time to pause for celebration. But we must also redouble our efforts to allow other states to liberate themselves from the chokehold of the elites. Together we will win, and we will reform this country. I am so proud to have had even the slightest part in the effort. My only regret is that I did not do more.

Three Issues Facing California

Photo Source: Forbes
Photo Source: Forbes

 

  • Problem 1: Detrimental Impact of California’s Large Prison Population

Too much of California’s scarce resources are being spent on incarcerating people, particularly nonviolent drug users. Spending at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) went from 3% of the states annual budget in 1980 to 11% in 2009. Since 1980 the CDCR budget has grown by an astronomical 436 percent. A large part of the problem is due to the policy of mass incarceration of nonviolent drug users for petty possession charges, also known as the ‘war on drugs.’

Prisons are more than overcrowded. They are a human rights issue violating the 8th amendment to the constitution. There is inadequate space, medical treatment, sanitation, nutrition, and that doesn’t account for solitary confinement, inmates on death row or the abuse by prison authorities. Filled prisons are a destabilizing socio-economic force, perpetuating cycles of poverty and single parent households especially in lower income communities. People of color are disproportionately targeted for arrest and drug prosecution. We must rectify these societal injustices and reduce our spending in this sector even more than the Governors’ 2013-2014 Budget proposal of nine billion dollars to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The Supreme Court agreed when they ruled that California had to reduce prison crowding to 137.5% of capacity by June 2013. Governor Brown’s Justice Department readily acknowledges they will be unlikely to meet the deadline.

Solution: I recommend the following: release the 24,959  nonviolent drug offenders, prioritizing those exhibiting good behavior; focus incarceration efforts on violent and sexual crimes; allot a portion of the money currently spent on imprisonment towards intensive drug treatment; and conduct research on lowering the cost of prisons while improving services.

  • Problem 2: Is our education system working?

In many schools, California’s public education system is failing its students, particularly impoverished students and students of color. Impoverished children are less likely to graduate from high school, go to or graduate from college. Of the 72,320 high school dropouts this past year, 42,129 were Hispanic. Students who do graduate college find themselves with a crippling average debt of $19,000 and unprecedented unemployment rates. The cost of education rises as services, infrastructure, and the quality and availability of instruction diminishes. There are insufficient funds for special needs, integrated technology, and blended learning programs. Standardized testing as a metric to evaluate students does little to foster critical thinking, writing abilities, or useful skills for life, future education, and employment. The Economic Policy Institute warned of damaging consequences to test-based evaluation systems or merit pay based on test scores.

  • Problem 3: Water Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Water is the most essential resource for survival on this planet, and California is running out. Regrettably, California’s water system is in grave peril. We face serious obstacles in keeping up with water demand for our current population and we will be unable to meet future increased demands. Experts agree our systems are in need of major upgrades. Climate change and droughts diminish snow reserves California needs in order replenish reservoirs. The integral hub of California’s water system, the Delta is endangered by levee failure, and sea-levels rising as native fish populations fall. Twenty million California residents rely on the Delta for water. Sea –level rise would corrupt the existing freshwater supply and flood the homes, farms, and other Delta residents’ private property. Without a stable and secure source of freshwater Californian’s could find themselves without constant access to food and water in the very near future.

Sources: Problem 1 Detrimental Impact of California’s Large Prison Population


1. “The Future of California Corrections – A Blueprint to Save Billions of Dollars, End Federal Court Oversight, and Improve the Prison System”  http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/2012plan/docs/plan/complete.pdf

2. Winners and Losers: Corrections and Higher Education in California

3. BROWN, GOVERNOR OF CALIFORNIA, ET AL. v. PLATA ET AL. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-1233.pdf

4. Geurino, P., Harrison, P. M., & Sabol, W. (2011). Prisoners in 2010. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics. http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p10.pdf

5. 2013-2014 Governor’s Budget Summary, Edmund G. Brown Jr. Governor, State of California — http://www.ebudget.ca.gov/pdf/BudgetSummary/FullBudgetSummary.pdf

6. American Psychological Association – Psychologists offer ways to improve prison environment, reduce violent crime — http://phys.org/news168967098.html

7. Prison Fellowship International – beyond crime and punishment http://www.pfi.org/cjr/downloads/ten-keys-to-improving-conditions-in-overcrowded-prisons

Sources: Problem 2: Education

8. California Department Of Education Cohort Graduation and Dropout Rates 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 — http://www.cde.ca.gov/nr/ne/yr12/yr12rel65.asp

9. Project On Student Debt, California – http://projectonstudentdebt.org/state_by_state-view2012.php?area=CA

10. Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers – Economic Policy Institute — http://www.epi.org/publication/bp278/

 

Sources: Problem 3: Water Water Everywhere and not a drop to drink

11. California Water Today – Public Policy Institute of California —http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_211EHChapter2R.pdf

12. Association of California Water Agencies —  http://www.acwa.com/spotlight/california-water-2012-water-bond