In their attempts to silence the political voice of working people, conservative groups and millionaire donors have been disingenuous and anti-democratic. But you can't say they haven't been persistent.
Proposition 32 -- a so-called "paycheck protection" measure that will appear on California's ballot in November -- is hardly a novel innovation. Rather, it is this year's tired reincarnation of similar ballot initiatives rejected by voters in 1998 and again in 2005.
The current measure is framed as something that would restrict political contributions by both unions and corporations. Yet, as Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik recently noted, it has loopholes for corporations that you could drive a campaign bus through. The proposition, Hiltzik wrote, "exempts such common business structures as LLCs, partnerships and real estate trusts. If you're a venture investor, land developer or law firm, Proposition 32 doesn't lay a finger on you."
Likewise, San Francisco State University labor and employment studies professor John Logan explained in The Hill: "Under Prop 32, neither the spending by business interests nor wealthy individuals would face meaningful limitations--indeed, it would likely explode--while that of unions would be all-but eliminated." Certainly, the measure would do nothing to restrict the flood of secretive cash into politics from super PACs such as American Crossroads--run by none other than George W. Bush's political Machiavelli, Karl Rove.
Given that Prop 32 is backed by right-wingers such as former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, it's little surprise to learn that the measure is a straightforward anti-union initiative dressed in sheep's clothing. Its boosters neglect to mention several critical facts about labor's participation in elections. Unions only support candidates and get behind ballot measures after an endorsement process that involves debate among democratically elected officers of their organizations and often large numbers of members. The California Teachers Association, for example, uses a panel of some 800 members to vote on what causes it will support. Thus, their endorsement process is far more democratic than that of corporations, which do not make a habit of gaining approval from shareholders before pouring money into political ads and super PACs.
Moreover, union members pooling money to make their voices heard represents an action totally different than bulk donations by the wealthy. California's top 50 big-money donors, individuals who spent well over $200 million between 2001 and 2011 to blare their messages into the ears of the state's residents, have little trouble gathering the type of sizeable donations that ensure clout. Working people, on the other hand, have no choice but to band together. When a union buys a $500 ticket to a dinner in support of a candidate, that ticket was bought with the five- and ten-dollar contributions of scores of union members. When a wealthy donor shows up, his or her ticket represents the interests of just one human being.
This pattern is reflected in the spending on the campaigns around Proposition 32 itself. The top funders in favor of the initiative are individual investors and venture capitalists donating $100,000 or more each. The campaign against the measure, in contrast, is backed by organizations representing tens of thousands of firefighters, teachers, janitors, and healthcare workers.
Public interest watchdogs such as Common Cause and Public Citizen have seen through the charade that presents Prop 32 as a fair-and-balanced initiative. They are urging voters to defeat the measure. "Prop 32 is not what it seems, and it will hurt everyday Californians," said Trudy Schafer of the League of Women Voters of California in a post for the Los Angeles Times.
The saddest thing about the conservative push for Prop 32 is that it seeks to curtail broad-based participation in politics at a time when cynicism and apathy are already on the rise.
Americans are turning away from involvement in our democracy because they feel that the system is rigged in favor of wealthy individuals who can afford to buy influence with lavish contributions.
Disillusioned citizens are right that the cards are stacked against them. But rather than fixing this, Proposition 32 would make it worse by closing off an important avenue to collective political participation.
Here's hoping voters will respond by rejecting this conservative ploy for a third time.
Follow Amy B. Dean on Twitter: www.twitter.com/amybdean