John Cox, a Republican running for governor, has a radical plan to shake up politics in California. He’s explaining it to everybody who will listen.
Running on the slogan “Clean Out the Barn,” a pastoral-themed variation of President Donald Trump’s “Drain the Swamp,” Cox is the brain behind a proposed statewide initiative to dramatically reshape the Democratic-dominated state Legislature.
The idea, which he hopes to put on the November 2018 ballot, would create thousands of new elected officials by subdividing each Assembly and Senate district into 100 districts.
“California has the largest legislative districts in the world,” Cox says of the need for his reforms. Under his plan, 99 lawmakers would stay home in the district and advise the 120 who would travel to the state Capitol to cast votes.
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“They are actually able to operate free of having people who don’t like what they are doing run ads against them, because everybody will only represent a tiny little district.”
Cox acknowledges the tall order of taking on the entrenched political establishment – from both major parties. It’s not his first attempt. He has tried unsuccessfully to push a similar ballot measure since 2012. Cox recently submitted about 800,000 signatures (he needs 586,000 valid signatures to qualify) and expects to have an answer in a matter of weeks.
How would it work?
Currently, each of the Assembly’s 80 members represents about 500,000 people, while the state Senate’s 40 members each represent about 1 million people.
Cox would carve each of those districts into 100 micro-districts. Neighborhood legislators, as Cox calls them, would then meet locally to select the 80 Assembly working group members and 40 Senate working group members that would represent them in Sacramento.
Neighborhood representatives could remove their respective working committee members by a two-thirds vote.
Cox predicts that campaigners would spend less time raising money from special interests, including labor unions and corporations, and that serving in the Legislature would once again become an opportunity for public service rather than a job for career politicians. He argues that the result would be less corruption.
What’s to stop them from raising big money?
Nothing. The initiative doesn’t change campaign finance laws. But Cox thinks there would be backlash if a candidate for a neighborhood district accepted maximum donations.
“Guess what I would conclude in that case?” he asks. “That you’re a crook. You’re raising all of this money for what reason? In a tiny district of only 5,000 people you don’t need the money. You could go print up a couple fliers and go door-to-door and do just as well ... Are you going to run TV ads in a district of only 5,000 people?”
What’s his definition of corruption?
“It’s not illegal corruption I’m talking about,” Cox says. “I am not trying to be over-dramatic.
“I am trying to point out a system that is not illegally corrupt, it’s just built for corruption of a legal sort,” he adds. “What else do you call it when people make these mammoth contributions not only to candidates but to independent expenditure (committees), and they do it to influence legislation, positively or negatively? To me, I call that ‘corruption.’ Other people may say it’s ‘undo-influence,’ or it’s ‘influence-peddling.’ I don’t care what you call it, but it results in the fact that we don’t get the best practices.”
How much will they be paid?
The 99 elected officials in each district who stay home would be paid $1 a year. The other 120 members would earn a salary equivalent to 120 percent of the annual median household income for California, which based on 2015 U.S. Census data was $77,400. Salaries could be updated at the time of each new regular session.
Neighborhood representatives would get reimbursed for travel expenses attending local meetings, while working committee members would be allowed to recoup up to $200 a day. The existing Citizens Compensation Commission could adjust the per diem of members based on the Consumer Price Index.
How do the critics see it?
“Bigger isn’t always better,” contends Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio, who served three terms in the 400-member New Hampshire Legislature.
“Lawmakers face complex problems that (required) expertise, and having hundreds of amateur politicians running around would empower special interests. What ends up happening is that a handful of leaders end up running the show and the rest follow along like sheep. You simply can’t take the politics out of legislating by expanding the size of an elected body.”
What are the political challenges?
“First of all, this is not going to happen,” argues Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. “When it comes to anything on the ballot, the default (position of voters) is ‘no,’ and you have to move them to a ‘yes.’ There will be an enormous amount of political pressure and money behind a ‘no’ campaign from the establishment and familiar faces.”
That said, Levinson added that it is a “little nutty” the state only has 120 lawmakers for nearly 40 million residents. “We have shown that we are willing to make some changes,” including how districts are redrawn and the top-two primary, under which the two-highest votegetters regardless of party advance to the fall. “But this is a major change.”
How much will Cox spend?
Cox says about 80 percent of Californians believe the Legislature is too beholden to special interests, giving him a good starting point. He has contributed $3 million of his own money to his gubernatorial campaign and $2 million to the measure, plus another $125,000 to repeal a gas tax increase that lawmakers pushed to repair roads.
Cox expects to spend some more of his money, he says, but stresses that he won’t be able to do it all on his own.
“I am not a self-funder,” he says. “This has got to be done with the people of California.”
Why isn’t he addressing statewide elected offices?
Cox thinks his measure may have an impact on those offices.
“Think about it this way,” he says. “When there are 12,000 ‘neighborhood’ districts out around the state and people know the guy or gal who is their representative, and let’s say there’s a statewide race, they’ll be able to talk to somebody in their neighborhood who they trust. And, remember, they trust them because they know they aren’t raising money from people. And they will say, ‘Who is this guy ...? Should I vote for him, or should I vote for this other guy?’”
Would Cox rather be governor, or have his neighborhood Legislature?
Cox conceded that he would rather be the governor at a recent forum hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California.
“I want to turn this state around and I want to get things done,” he says. “I’ll tell you what, if the neighborhood Legislature doesn’t pass this year, as the governor I’ll be proposing it the next go-around. It’s the right thing to do because it means that people have a voice. It means that we have true competition. It means we get better people to run because you don’t have to give up your whole life like you do now.”