The Good News from Hightower

Jim Hightower's latest book, If the Gods had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates, offers a detailed view of the big money interests and political shufflings that shaped the 2000 elections.

But despite the bleakness of American politics, Hightower reminds us with his characteristic Texan wit that the U.S. A. is also home to vibrant and steadily expanding grassroots movements, which won several key victories in 2000. He lauds the success of the new Clean Election laws in Maine and Arizona, where public funds were made available to political candidates, eliminating the fundraising scramble. The funds enabled a waitress, an education professor and an advocate for campaign finance reform to defeat big money incumbents. "This is blood-pumping reform," cheers Hightower.

Hightower also celebrates states that put the brakes on the Drug War by legalizing medical marijuana and preventing assets forfeiture. California wins the gold medal here with Proposition 36, which promotes drug treatment over draconian prison sentences. An estimated 36,000 non-violent drug users will receive counseling rather than jail time as a result of the law.

So for Hightower, 2000 was a not such a bad year. A host of cities adopted new living wage laws that raised minimum hourly pay. Citizens of Santa Monica, California trounced a corporate effort to stump wage increases. "Take heart," Hightower trumpets to his fellow lefties, "Keep agitating."

That's the message of this excerpt from If the Gods…

GOOD NEWS

An unadulterated, corporate-free politics is building where it matters most, locally, and it's spreading all across the country. This movement scored important and inspirational victories in 2000 that are models of progressive strength, giving us building blocks for the next time, and the next time, and the next time. Naturally, the corporate media ignored these victories.

CLEAN ELECTIONS. In the midst of the muck and mire of a money-swamped national election, an extraordinary flower was blooming in Maine and Arizona. These are two of the four states that already have passed initiatives providing for public financing of their legislative and statewide elections. Holy Moly, cry the opponents of publicly financed elections, why in the world would we want to give some of our tax dollars to politicians? Yoo-hoo ... we already give ALL of our tax dollars to politicians. Under today's private, pay-to-play system of financing elections, the politicians who get elected by special interest money divvy up our tax monies to the fat-cat contributors who put them in office. For contributors, this system offers a deal that's just too good to turn down. Business 101 teaches that anytime you can put in a dime and take out a dollar, grab it! In the case of a state legislature, say, corporate donors gladly put up a few hundred thousand dollars to put their chosen ones in office, then in turn these legislators dole out millions of dollars in subsidies, tax loopholes, regulatory favors, and other governmental goodies to the donors.

If we're ever to get politicians to serve public need rather than private greed, we've got to eliminate this legalized bribery, and the cleanest, most effective way to do it is to provide public funds for all candidates of all parties who show a minimal level of popular support. By publicly financing election campaigns, we get the corrupting money out of the system, save billions of dollars in tax-paid giveaways now being funneled to private donors, and take back our political process from the bagmen. Plus, we can do it on the cheap! For less than $5 per taxpayer per election year, we can finance all the candidates.

But we also get an extra-special bonus with public financing -- regular people can run for office again. By creating this common pool of public campaign funds, a school teacher, plumber, organic farmer, homemaker, restaurant owner, laborer, student, or anyone else (you!) can gain access to compete against the incumbents, without having to sell out his or her principles. Meet some people who took this route in 2000, running for state offices in Maine and Arizona, the first two states to make their public campaign funds available to candidates:

- Deborrah Simpson, a waitress and single mom living in Auburn, Maine, had never run for office, but Deb qualified for access to the state's Clean Elections fund, and took on an "old boy" Democrat in the primary for a state legislative seat. Unburdened of the need to waste time fund-raising, she knocked on nearly every door in the district, and defeated her established political opponent by 87 votes. In the general election, she faced the brother of the fellow who had held the seat for six years, but despite his name recognition and financial backing, Deb won by 250 votes.

- Marilyn Canavan, 68, a longtime advocate of campaign reform, had never run for office because she couldn't stomach the thought of dialing for dollars. But with public financing available, she ran, defeating Republican and independent party rivals who were financed by special interests. "It is a good feeling knowing I don't owe anything to anybody except my constituents," she beamed.

- Jay Blanchard, an education professor, was the first Arizonan to receive Clean Election money, using it to run a grassroots campaign and win a state senate seat. Running in a heavily Republican district, Democrat Blanchard was up against the powerful House speaker, Jeff Groscost, who was expecting to "ascend" to the senate, propelled by more than $100,000 in business backing. Blanchard had $27,000 in public funding, which as he said, "doesn't level the playing field, but it gets you on the playing field." In his case, being there was crucial, for a budget scandal blew up in the speaker's face, allowing Blanchard to trounce him. Had public financing been unavailable to Blanchard, he would not have run, Groscost would have been unopposed, and angry voters would have had nowhere to turn when the scandal broke.

- Henry Camarot got fed up with blowhard Barbara Blewster, a Republican from a toney Prescott district. Blewster's forte was making breathtakingly stupid and bigoted statements about minorities, yet she kept getting elected with the support of moneyed interests who don't care about bigotry as long as she delivers for them. They backed her again this time, but Camarot defeated her despite being outspent by $50,000. He notes that he would not have challenged such a heavily financed incumbent had it not been for the Clean Election system, which gave him a fighting chance.

Public financing is like getting a new transmission, a super-charged fuel injection system, and a lube job for our sputtering, clogged-up election system. This is blood-pumping reform -- reform that matters, opening up the process and changing the dynamics of government. In Maine, there was a 40 percent increase in contested primaries; more women ran for office than ever before; almost half of the races had at least one "clean" candidate; the new system was used by first-timers who previously felt shut out, incumbents tired of the money chase, Democrats, Republicans, and independents; over half of the clean candidates won. In the legislature alone, a third of Maine's house members now have no ties to special-interest money and half of the senate is free of such corrupting money ties. Likewise in Arizona (despite a court fight that delayed implementation of the Clean Elections law and deterred many who had planned to use it), 60 candidates used the public fund in 2000, and 16 were elected, including 12 of the 60 house members, two senators, and two of the three members of the powerful Arizona Corporation Commission.

So effective is the Clean Election system that the money powers are doing all they can to crush it. Last November, initiatives for public financing were defeated in Missouri, where Anheuser-Busch, Hallmark Cards, Kansas City Power & Light, and the Missouri Association of Realtors poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into an anti reform campaign, and in Oregon, where a gaggle of corporate lobbyists financed a high-dollar media blitz that distorted the meaning of public financing, saying that it was designed to fund "extremist" candidates. In a state with 26 ballot initiatives, many of them hotly contested, Oregon reform forces were buried in a deluge of money, distortion, and lack of focus. The good news is that among voters who did know what the initiatives in both Oregon and Missouri would do, there was very strong support. Even better news is that reform forces already are organizing in both states -- and elsewhere -- for cleaning up the system. Again, public financing works, which is why it will be aggressively opposed by regressive forces, but this is also why it will be increasingly demanded by the public ... and ultimately will prevail.

JUST SAYING NO TO THE DRUG WAR. One of the important realignment issues for American politics is the wasteful, fraud-ridden, money-sucking, liberty-invading, anti-privacy, minority-oppressing drug war that is so beloved by Bush, Gore, and the full leadership of both parties -- and so detested by conservatives, libertarians, populists, liberals, and other people of common sense. In November, the people pounded the tinhorn generals of drug-war repression, winning sweeping victories in five states that held votes to free people from the loopiness of these so-called warriors. Two more states, Colorado and Nevada, joined the six that already have authorized seriously ill people to use marijuana for medical purposes under a doctor's guidance. The U.S. "Drug Czar," General Barry McCaffrey foamed at the mouth against both of these initiatives, but 54 percent of Coloradans said "yes" and 65 percent of those radical Nevadans approved.

Two other states, Oregon and Utah, rose up to stop the notorious "assets forfeiture" outrage used by national, state, and local cops in the name of fighting drugs. This dictum comes right out of the playbook of King George III and other tyrants, authorizing police to seize cars, cash, homes, and other property of people who happen to be in the vicinity of a drug investigation -- even if they are not charged with a crime, much less convicted. Tens of millions of dollars are reaped annually by police authorities, who are allowed to keep the seized assets of even innocent citizens. No longer can cops do it in Oregon, though, where 66 percent of voters said "get outta here," requiring that a citizen first has to be convicted of a crime involving their property before the property can be grabbed. Even then, the seized loot goes not to the gendarmes, but to drug treatment programs. Meanwhile, in hard-core, conservative, Morman Utah, the vote was even more emphatic, with 69 percent favoring the initiative to require a crime before any forfeiture takes place, and with all seized-property proceeds going to the state's school fund.

The most significant turnaround in drug policy came with Proposition 36 in California, which at least begins to treat drug addiction (just as we do with nicotine and alcohol addiction) as a health problem, not as a jailable crime. It allocates $120 million a year to drug treatment options, including not only medical programs, but also job and literacy training and family counseling. This initiative is projected to divert 24,000 nonviolent drug users and 12,000 parole violators from jail to treatment each year, saving taxpayers more than $125 million in annual prison costs and $475 million in new prison construction. This helps explain why 61 percent of California voters supported Prop 36 -- a bigger percentage than Al Gore got.
Then there's the decriminalization issue. In Mendocino County, up in Northern California's "Golden Herb" district, 58 percent of voters rallied to decriminalize marijuana growing -- Measure G provided that any adult can grow 25 marijuana plants for personal use. In an act of civic chutzpah, the measure also directs the county sheriff and prosecutor to make marijuana crimes their LAST priority, and it directs county officials to seek an end to state and federal marijuana laws. OK, you say, that's Crazy California -- but what about Alaska? Having already okayed medical use of marijuana, this supposedly conservative state had Measure 5 on the ballot, which not only would have decriminalized marijuana use by adults, but also would have granted amnesties to people previously convicted of nonviolent marijuana "crimes." It went further. Measure 5 would have appointed a state panel to consider reparations for those who've been harmed by marijuana prohibition. Yes, it failed ... but 40 percent of voters were for it!

The citizens are way ahead of the politicians on the need to rein in the authoritarian zealots who are trampling liberties, destroying lives, denying treatment to dying and suffering people, and profiteering in the name of fighting drugs. With last year's sweeping victories, 17 out of 19 reform initiatives have passed around the country in the last four years.

LIVING WAGE. 2000 was a very good year for proponents of restoring some fundamental fairness to America's wage scale, with Denver, San Fernando, Omaha, Toledo, Alexandria, Cleveland, St. Louis, San Francisco, Eau Claire (county), Berkeley, and Santa Cruz raising to 53 the number of places adopting a "living wage" standard. This rapidly spreading grassroots phenomenon is grounded in the proposition that full-time work ought to lift employees above the poverty level and provide basic health-care coverage. But the greatest victory last year was a "negative win" in Santa Monica, where voters absolutely stomped on an anti–living wage initiative.

With a cynicism deeper and darker than the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, luxury hotel owners in this Southern California beach city attempted to dupe voters with a corporate stealth campaign that would have outlawed living wage laws affecting them. In an Orwellian example of doublespeak, the hoteliers called themselves "Santa Monicans for a Living Wage," and put forth Measure KK that would require corporations receiving city contracts to pay their employees $8.32 an hour. The deception in this corporate-backed maneuver (they hired signature gatherers to sneak their initiative onto the November ballot) is that while the hotels receive millions of dollars worth of city-financed benefits, they don't have any direct city contracts, so they would be exempt. Only 62 employees in all of Santa Monica would have been affected by KK! Meanwhile, inside the language of the initiative was a provision that would have blocked the city council from enacting any broader ordinance covering the booming hotels and upscale restaurants along Santa Monica's two-mile coastline.

Leading the charge was the posh Loew's Santa Monica Beach Hotel -- a property owned by one of Al Gore's top money men, Jonathan Tisch of New York. The Loew's operation pumped $325,000 into Measure KK, with another $350,000 coming from the Edward Thomas Companies, owners of the exclusive Shutters on the Beach and Casa Del Mar hotels. In all, the tourist titans who profit on the backs of low-wage workers put a million bucks into pulling off this voter scam.

Real living-wage proponents were caught off guard, but once they were aware of the corporate end run, they jumped all over KK. "What it ended up doing in the end," said one grassroots leader, "was pissing off the community." Even though they were outspent five to one, they launched a one-on-one campaign to talk personally with 16,000 voters. "What we're aiming for is a resounding 'no,' something so definite that no other big business in the country will use this tactic," said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, local leader of the people's forces on this issue. Not only did the people succeed, they routed the forces of greed so thoroughly that the corporate coalition quietly "suspended activities" of KK a week before the election. Ultimately, nearly eight out of ten Santa Monicans said no to the initiative, the trickery, and the profiteers. "It was meant to dupe the regular people and they felt insulted by it," said local union leader Rene Talbott. "It's just mean-spirited. You don't need to have profit with exploitation."

WINNERS. We can take heart, too, from hundreds of victories won by hard-charging, unabashed progressives running for local and state seats, as well as such congressional successes as populist champion Lane Evans in Illinois, Rush Holt in New Jersey, Marcy Kaptur in Ohio, Rick Larson in Washington, Betty McCollum in Minnesota, Hilda Solis in East Los Angeles, and David We in Oregon.

Third parties gained strength, too, with New York State's scrappy upstart, the Working Families Party, having a great day on November 7. Despite having ballot confusion that makes Florida's SNAFUs look smooth, despite having their voting-line levers mysteriously broken on scores of voting machines, and despite having some of their poll workers harassed and even arrested on election day -- the WFP drew more than 100,000 New Yorkers to their party's line. This is double what they had in ‘98, their first year on the ballot, and it raises Working Families to the fourth largest political party in the Empire State.

Greens also bloomed with the election of all sorts of local officials across the country, including city council members in places like Arkansas, California, Hawaii, and Wyoming, as well as assorted school board members, county trustees, parks commissioners, and even a Soil and Water commissioner in Des Moines.

In all of these burgeoning efforts for insurgent Democrats, the New Party, Working Families, Greens, the Labor Party, state and local initiatives, and other determined rebellions against politics as usual, there is a new pool of exciting candidates, experienced and trained organizers, fresh political advocates, and renewed civic energy. Here is our strength, gaining ground mostly below the media's radar, raising real issues and steadily advancing a new politics of substance and passion. At the level of two-party presidential politics, Election 2000 was an empty and alienating exercise, but the giant is starting to stir, and the possibility of having a national election that matters is not as far off as the Powers That Be would have us believe. Keep agitating.

This excerpt from If the Gods Had Meant Us To Vote, They'd Have Given Us Candidates is copyrighted by HarperCollins Publishers.

Jim Hightower, an author, public speaker, radio personality and political commentator, is the author of the best-selling There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos. Read more Hightower at JimHightower.com.

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