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10 Rules of Populist Power -- The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell

This excerpt from Jamie Court's new book offers ten simple rules that can help an awakened public see and seize the outside opportunities for creating change.

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When he was in the California Legislature, Gray Davis, who later lost a recall election as governor in 2003, sponsored legisla­tion to put the faces of missing children on milk cartons. When my consumer group wanted to force Davis, as governor, to sign a strong HMO patient protection law in 1998, Harvey Rosenfield came up with the idea of putting the governor’s face on faux milk cartons. “Missing: California Governor. Last Seen at Fundraiser with HMO Executives.” We printed up thousands of the cartons and delivered them to hotel rooms in the San Francisco Hilton the night before Davis was scheduled to give a big breakfast speech. The flyer had all the details about how Davis met behind closed doors with HMO executives, raised big campaign contributions from them, and said he would not sign the tough patient protection law we wanted.

Davis received a chilly reception at the breakfast speech. He was upset by our tactics, especially a letter about the issue that we had Ralph Nader send to him, and went into a San Francisco Chronicle editorial meeting with a chip on his shoulder and angry that, as the governor, he was being taken to task. At that editorial board meet­ing he was asked about the patients’ rights legislation and made his big mistake. He said of the legislature, “Their job is to implement my vision.” When those words appeared in the newspaper, he was forced to retreat. The legislature put a very tough piece of legislation on his desk and he signed it. After the HMO patients’ bill of rights signing ceremony, Davis stopped me as I was walking in a crosswalk. He leaned out of the backseat of his Lincoln town car and said, “Jamie, you have to give me high marks for this one. I want to see it on the front page.” Never underestimate politicians’ regard for their self-image.

Making it personal obviously often comes with a personal cost. The governor was very angry with us for a long time. We heard from donors that Governor Davis had personally called them and asked that they not contribute to our group. I knew one of the organiz­ers of that Gray Davis breakfast very well. He wouldn’t talk to me for years. I have no doubt, though, that had we not personalized the issues, Davis would have carried through on his threat to veto the stronger patient protections.

Rule 8: Seize the Moment—Don’t Pick Your Time, Have the Goods and Let Your Time Pick You

Timing is the fulcrum of populist power. We cannot always choose it but we have to be ready for it to choose us. Create the record, plan for the right moments, and windows of opportunity should open to our advantage. These rare openings are awakenings in a public consciousness about an issue that can trump the human tendency to fear transitions and change itself. Moments of opportunity, events that focus public opinion like a beam, must be seized or they are lost. If it seems like the right time to jump into a campaign, don’t wait.

For example, the collapse of Enron following the burst of the dot-com stock bubble left people wondering what had happened not only to their nest eggs, but also to corporate governance rules. Our consumer group knew it provided a moment to act.

In the 1980s, an industrial accident led to a new California law requiring that managers tell regulators about workplace hazards or go to jail. We wanted the same individual accountability for corpo­rate executives on financial matters. Our first stab at reform was California legislation requiring that executives report financial fraud to government authorities or face jail time. We also wanted to create new protections for whistleblowers and a 1-800 hotline for them to report problems. Big business targeted the bill for defeat, calling it “tattletale” legislation and claiming the disloyal should not have new rights.

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