When I was walking out of the Ralph’s on Labor Day 2014, a man wearing a “6 Californias” T-shirt approached me and talked about a recently approved local minimum wage increase. Little did he know, I was well aware that he was getting paid $12 a signature to fight that effort.
We spoke at length, and he was quite misinformed about the issue. He mentioned that he didn’t care much about the initiative; he was just trying to make some money. Interesting juxtaposition, considering the day and the issue.
Fast-forward to 2015, when I was walking down University Avenue in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego and a signature gatherer approached me to talk about the One Paseo development project, almost 21 miles away from my home. When I asked why I should care about the project (for the record, I don’t) he lied and told me that developers were harming the environment by building the project on wetlands.
I’ve been loosely following this project, not because I care about it but because it’s clearly a personal battle between two rich white men. The project is not about having a walkable neighborhood. It’s not about affordable housing. It’s about money, plain and simple.
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Thus, we’ve reached the crux of this issue. Referendums are being abused by people with money and are being used to oppress those less fortunate. I didn’t spend 12 years in the Navy fighting for the American way of life to come home and see rich people upending the democratic process.
Basically, if one has enough money, it doesn’t matter what decision our elected representatives come to. What matters is what rich people want and how much they are willing to spend to get it. This is incredibly frustrating, disappointing and disgusting.
The referendum process came about to combat corruption and hold elected officials accountable to the people. It has since been hijacked by the rich. He or she with the most money wins. In San Diego, outside interests have affected the local minimum wage, the One Paseo project and several other issues that negatively affect a disproportionate number of residents without the means to fund a referendum. Our City Council is held hostage by the threat of referendum. One could call it a super-powerful 10th council member.
These groups often possess innocuous names that are hardly representative of the actual funders. For instance, the Small Business Coalition that funded the minimum wage referendum was actually funded by out-of-town and out-of-state groups like the California Restaurant Association based in Sacramento, the International Franchise Association out of Washington, D.C., and the American Hotel and Lodging Association, another D.C. group. The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce PAC, The San Diego Food and Beverage PAC and the San Diego Lodging Industry Association PAC were local big-business donors. The only local small businesses involved were Phil’s BBQ and Shelter Island Inc. Hardly a grass-roots initiative by small businesses.
An Orange County lawyer has even submitted a ballot measure that would legalize the murder of gay and lesbian Californians. Last week, Attorney General Kamala Harris asked a court to let her block the proposed ballot measure. If not granted, the proposal will head to the signature-gathering stage.
Tell me that this process does not need some reform.
Todd Gloria, a San Diego city councilman and former interim mayor, recently proposed raising the percentage of voters to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot at the state level. Locally, he proposed bringing the reporting of donors in line with local rules for elections. I think this is a great proposal, but I think we should go further. How about some donation limits? How about residency requirements for signature gatherers?
So how do we preserve representative democracy? How do we avoid being accosted by signature gatherers who are enticed by huge paydays? We change it. The referendum process has been hijacked by greedy people. Call your Assembly member and state senator; tell them that this vile process must be changed.
Shawn VanDiver is a 12-year Navy veteran and adjunct faculty at three universities teaching military studies, national security policy, homeland security, and international security and trade. He is the co-director of the Truman National Security Project, San Diego Chapter. Follow him on Twitter at @ShawnJVanDiver.