Money and politics go together like, well...any other two things that are constantly with each other. Peanut butter and jelly, cookies and cream, burger and fries, you get the idea. And most people, even those who don't really follow election news, agree that the influence that money (and those with lots of it) has on the American political process is too much. Sure, there have been reform efforts throughout the years, like Congress’ passing of the McCain-Feingold Act over a decade ago, but that was essentially rendered powerless by the Supreme Court with the infamous Citizens United case in 2010.
But now there’s a new idea on how to fight big money’s hold on politics: forcing politicians to acknowledge it. A recently proposed ballot initiative in California would require state politicians to wear badges or patches of the logos of their biggest corporate donors.
The proposal is being promoted by the California Is Not For Sale campaign and Enstars recently caught up with its founder, John Cox, to talk about why he started the campaign, how far along in the process they are and how this is just the first step in his plan to help fix his state’s political system.
Enstars: I want to start off by asking what your personal motivation is for creating something like this.
John Cox: This has been lifelong effort by me. I grew up in Chicago, which is the capital of corruption as far as that goes...I ran for delegate to the democratic convention in 1976 because I wanted to run against the Daley machine. But I went to law school, developed a business and now I'm going to back to try and fulfill what I started out doing, and that is to fight the corruption wherever I can find it.
I worked my way through college. I worked my way through law school. I built a small business. I did it without buying politicians, like a certain presidential candidate who shall not be named. I'm not a crony. I've done it the old fashioned way...I've now built enough money that I don't need to leave to my children. And I'd rather leave them a legacy of a better country, a better state, a better government that's more sustainable.
I feel like I’ve heard this the idea of having politicians wear sponsor logos before, but as part of a comedy routine.
I wish I had come up with it. Some people tell me Robin Williams came up with it, some people tell me Bill Maher came up with it...But the point is that it is not a joke, because it's to highlight a problem. Yes, some people out there will think it's funny. But this is not a one off. People look at these cardboard cutouts that we created. And they look funny because Jerry Brown [the current governor of California] is all decked out in logos like a NASCAR driver. But the real easy thing to understand is that these people are bought and paid for.
Now in 2017 and 2018, you're going to see the next step here and that is an effort at a real solution and then an effort to restructure state government in California that we believe will be the model for restructuring governments across the country. So people need to understand that this is part of a multi-step plan.
Okay, I want to get into those next step plans, but can you first comment on the logistics of how this initiative is going to work if it’s passed as a law?
What we did is we tried to make this initiative as EASY as possible, and the reason for that is that we just wanted it to be easily understood. We're not going to get into the weeds on which contributors and what their type of the logo has to be. The only thing we said in the initiative is that it has to be visible from the gallery when anybody passes a vote on any legislation, either in the committee or on the floor of the state capital. And again the reason for that is so that people can clearly see when somebody casts a vote what kind of influences they have.
But what about “dark money” organizations that obscure exactly who’s donating money to support a candidate?
There's no question that this initiative doesn't reach that kind of thing. And that's not the point of it. Frankly, the NEXT step in this process, which is what I'm talking about for what we're going to do in 2017 and 2018, ABSOLUTELY will address dark money. It'll address superpacs. It'll address expenditures. It'll address ALL of that.
Alright, what’s the next step?
It's called the neighborhood legislature. The idea we're talking about here is the awareness of the problem. And of course, voters aren't stupid. They already know that their politicians are bought and paid for. That's why so many of them just refuse to get registered or even vote. They look at it and say, "What's the point? Why should I even participate when these guys do what the funders want anyway?"...And there is a better way to structure the system so that we don't have to have politicians that are so corrupt.
Elections aren't decided today, for the most part, on issues or character. We might like to think they are, but at the end of the day the guy with the most money who can get his message heard by the most people and who can hire the most workers to get the vote out is USUALLY the guy that wins.
What the neighborhood legislature does is shrink the size of all these campaigns and makes them so tiny that money isn't the overriding factor, issues and character are. And real people, homemakers, college students, retirees, business owners, business workers, anybody can run for office. All they have to do is print up a few fliers and go door to door and talk to their neighbors and get a feel for what they neighborhood wants.
I think that's a better system. Don't you?
I’m not sure. So you’d increase the amount of representatives? Wouldn’t that bog down the legislative process?
What happens is that in California it increases the number of districts by a factor of a hundred. So they go from 120 districts to 12,000, but the 12,000 caucus in all these little districts, in small numbers, groups of 100, and then they elect 120 people to go to Sacramento as part of working committees who actually do all the nitty-gritty dirty work of legislating. They hold the hearings, the draft the laws, they do all the horse trading and do all the compromising. And those 120 produce laws that then have to be ratified by the rest of the neighborhood people who have really pretty much stayed at home and lived their lives.
Gotcha. So what happens now? Are you guys collecting signatures yet?
Good question. We actually haven't gotten the title and summary yet. We filed this at the end of October which means we expect title and summary at the end of December...so we expect it pretty much any day now. And at that juncture, as soon as we get the language from the Attorney General of California, we can print up petitions.
One of the neat things about this is that we made it very simple, and that means it'll fit on one side of a letter size piece of paper. What does that mean? That means that ANYBODY in California can print this off one page, they sign it and then mail it to our P.O. box....I'm hoping that we get millions of people who say "Yeah, this makes a lot of sense. I'll sign it."