America West Briefing Tour: Time to say "auf wiedersehen" to the 2011 Tour of Modern Direct Democracy in the west
By Al Ortiz and Kelly O'Keefe
PORTLAND, Oregon: Now, the sad part. All good things must come to an end. The 2011 Briefing Tour of Modern Direct Democracy in the American West has come to a close. Goodbyes (or auf wiedersehen's) were said to our friends from Germany, as well as Iceland, Sweden and the Philippines, as flights had to be caught and hotels had to vacated.
However, as the trip winds down and natural reflection on the past week sets in, here's a look back at our travels:
The 2011 Briefing Tour of Modern Direct Democracy in the American West began with a welcome dinner in San Francisco, where we met our fellow tour participants, who traveled from all over the world. Unfortunately though, air travel and getting to the hotel from the airport was more than a chore.
Also included was a highlight of California's history of direct democracy, which started with a ballot including 23 legislatively-referred constitutional amendments on October 10, 1911. Among those twenty-three amendments, according to Joe Mathews, journalist at New America Foundation, were ballot questions to implement the initiative, referendum and recall processes.
Our first morning began with Robert Cherny, professor of history at San Francisco State University, walking us through Californian direct democracy from the 19th century until the present. Professor Cherny believes that direct democracy, when it started, was more popular in the west because political parties were comparably less powerful than they were in the east. He shared an interesting graph with us that showed the number of initiatives on the Caifornia ballot in each decade. Between 1912 and 1919, there were 30 unique propositions.
These numbers held steady until a sudden drop off in the mid-1940s. It wasn't until the 1970s that the number of initiatives returned to their original levels. Numbers spiked in the 1980s, and from 2000-2009, there were a record-setting 79 California ballot propositions.
2011 Briefing Tour participants were then taken through a historic walk through the financial district of San Francisco, highlighting buildings and areas relevant to the 1906 earthquake and the unfortunate aftermath at the time that brought up questions of building code requirements and building near active faults, among other concerns. As a result, a reform of policy changes swept through the state, including direct democracy through the initiative and referendum process.
Day 2 of the trip yielded an extravagant, and lengthy, lunch at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco. Those attending the lunch were required to participate in asking questions to those who presented their area of expertise in direct democracy.
Presenters at the roundtable discussion, entitled "California Direct Democracy: The Next 100 years", included an array of leaders in the state initiative and referendum process.
That night, we headed to a panel discussion held by Zocalo Public Square. Our very own tour leader, Joe Mathews, moderated the panel. The tour participants joined about 100 other citizens for the event, which was called "How Do We Put the People Back in the Initiative Process?"
The participants discussed ways to strengthen the peoples' involvement in direct democracy. The panelists agreed that the process of direct democracy should be more accessible and deliberative. The take away from the discussion: "mend it, don't end it."
The panelists were Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation, Paul Jacob of the Citizens in Charge Foundation, Bruno Kaufman of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, and James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego.
And who could forget Professor Michael Salerno of the University of California-Hastings College of Law? The day after the Zocalo Public Square Event, the tour group attended a short discussion with the clinical professor and associate director of the Center for State and Local Government Law. He led a discussion about the both sides of the initiative and referendum process in the state. To start the event, Salerno had to make one thing clear to the group:
"I'm not against direct democracy. It is California's version of direct democracy that I do not support."
After a brief meeting with Scott Weiner, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, we traveled to Sacramento the next morning for a delectable breakfast of frittatas and plum tarts and listened to a revealing presentation of California's recent ballot measure history by Mark Paul.
Paul, senior fellow at New America Foundation, and co-author of the book "California Crackup", exposed information about ballot propositions in California that awed those of us at his table. In a power point presentation, Paul showed that the annual cost of approved ballot measures from 1988 to 2006, both legislatively referred and citizen-initiated, makes up $21 billion of the state budget.
This was a nice follow-up to the previous night's extravagant dinner at the home of Swiss Consul General Julius Anderegg. Ballotpedia writer Kelly O'Keefe's favorite part of this night, says the Wisconsin native, of course, was eating the spread of cheese presented on the dining room table.
The conversation was another highlight of the evening. Topics of discussion ranged from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Icelandic fiscal policy to how many times all of us would need to go to the gym to work off that amazing dinner.
After engaging in what California had to offer, we set our sights to the wild, wild west of Arizona.
What better way to begin our days in Arizona than to feast on the authentic Mexican food the briefing tour had a chance to wolf down. While sipping on margaritas and salted beer with lime, participants were visited by Martin Quezada, a Phoenix-based attorney who is involved in the Russell Pearce political recall effort.
Quezada stated that it has been quite a long time since residents in Arizona made this much headway on a recall effort. The strong support of his removal from office, and the materialization of the effort, highlights the frustrations of the people of Arizona with Pearce, says Quezada.
The group rose bright and early the next day to listen to Dr. Eric Novack and his experiences in the initiative process in Arizona.
Novack circulated an initiative in 2008 to place a measure on the ballot that would have barred any rules or regulations that would force state residents to participate in a health-care system. His measure failed to make the ballot. However, all was not lost for Novack and his fellow supporters, as in 2010, a measure with similar effects was placed on the ballot by the state legislature.
According to Novack when referring to his 2008 efforts: "Losing is a good thing. You can learn more by losing than from winning." The orthopedist, who grew up in Connecticut and picked up on his political desires in 2005, stated that there is a natural vetting process behind trying to achieve goals in the initiative process. If you fail to place an initiative on the ballot, you can go back and see what you did wrong, what you can fix and how to improve on certain things, says Novack.
Immediately after that, we met with Eric Ehst, who helped organize 1998's Proposition 200. Ehst is the executive director of the Clean Elections Institute, a group dedicated to "promoting and defending public campaign financing, independent redistricting, and citizens' initiative and referendum rights since 1998."
After speaking with Ehst, we then made our way to a lunch meet-up with Joe Yuhas, partner and Executive Director Public Affairs at the Riester Consulting Company, an organization who specializes in assisting initiative campaigns with signature collection, media advertising, initiative message development, research and other aspects of the initiative process crucial to voter approval, or disapproval.
Yuhas, along with his established business partner, claimed at the lunch that Riester has a 95% winning rate with the initiative campaigns it runs. But when they lose, "It's very, very hard to take." Later on, the City of Peoria, Arizona gave us a warm welcome. We heard from municipal court judge George T. Anagnost and city council member Ron Aames. They told us a bit about Arizona’s history and state constitution. We even learned this fun fact: for every Arizona state legislator, there are eight registered lobbyists.
That night's dinner featured a talk by Dane Waters, director of ballot campaigns for the Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society is one of the most prolific organizations when it comes to using the initiative process. Between 1990 and 2010, animal rights activists have been involved in 44 statewide ballot measure campaigns. They have won 30 of these campaigns, resulting in a 69% rate of success. You can learn more about these initiatives by reading about animal rights on the ballot.
We wrapped up the Arizona portion of our tour on September 25, 2011 with a tour of Taliesin West. Before we knew it, it was time to pile back into our giant van and head to the airport. But not before singing happy birthday to Ballotpedia writer Al Ortiz in German, Swiss German, Italian, Icelandic, Spanish and English.
Meanwhile, Oregon was awaiting our arrival.
Upon our arrival in Oregon, we had dinner at Portland's Nel Centro Restaurant with the city's mayor, Sam Adams. However, we wisely refrained from asking Mayor Adams what it felt like to be the victim of not one, but two attempted recall campaigns.
We were very happy to be reunited with our friend Julius Anderegg, Swiss Consul General. Julius and one of his staffers, Martin, traveled up to Portland since the Swiss direct democracy exhibit that we saw in San Francisco moved on to be displayed at Lewis and Clark College.
Mary Jean Thompson, who serves as an honorary American counsel representing Liechtenstein, was another dinner guest.
The final full day of our tour, September 26, was an informative one. We took part in a day-long conference on direct democracy held at the aforementioned Lewis and Clark College.
The day began with a panel titled "Making the Initiative Work for Oregon: Discussing the City Club of Portland's Report on Reforming Oregon's Initiative Process." Leslie Johnson and Arden Shenker, both members of the City Club of Portland, presented to the group. The City Club is a non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission is "to inform its members and the community in public matters, and to arouse in them the realization of the obligations of citizenship."
After a lunch break in our marathon day at Lewis and Clark, a panel took the stage that introduced the Citizens' Initiative Review, a process in evaluating ballot measures so Oregon voters can make informed decisions at the polls.
According to the group, this program allows state citizens to have access to "clear, useful, and trustworthy information at election time." The panel showed the room at the Gregg Pavilion a video that summed up the CIR's goal: To provide voters with an alternative to the "political spin at election time."
In what turned into a busy day at Lewis & Clark College, the tour group also heard a brief speech from a prominent state official at the College of Law.
Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown visited a direct democracy exhibition at the college, giving a few words to those sitting in the audience. Brown first started her speech with her background, which includes her birth in Spain, her undergraduate studies at the University of Colorado - Boulder, and how she obtained her law degree at, you guessed it, the Lewis and Clark College of Law.
Brown also served in the Oregon State Senate and in 1998 became the Senate Democratic leader. In 2004, Kate Brown was elected State Senate Majority Leader, a role she occupied until 2009 when she became Secretary of State.
Another little fact pointed out before she proceeded with remarks about the initiative and referendum process: Brown is the only Secretary of State in the nation that is also the state chief auditor.
This was the last event in the 2011 Briefing Tour on Direct Democracy in the American West, capping off a wildly successful trip.
Sizemore, a well-known ballot initiative activist from Oregon, is a proponent of fiscally conservative ballot measures in the state. In 1993, Sizemore founded Oregon Taxpayers United and became its Executive Director. He is noted as the author and driving force behind a number of ballot initiatives in Oregon.
What he is more infamously known for, however, are his accusations of tax evasion in November 2009. In the grand jury indictment issued October 27, 2009, Sizemore and his wife, Cindy Sizemore, allegedly failed to file state tax returns for the years 2006, 2007 and 2008.
According to Sizemore, in one of the more memorable quotes of the trip: "I don't deserve that evil from my opponents. The fact is, is that they don't like what I do [in the initiative process in the state], and they don't like that I'm good at it."
In what was supposed to be a tour on modern direct democracy in the American West, it feels as if much more was accomplished. Yes, we did learn about the nuts and bolts of the initiative and referendum systems in all three states we attended, but we saw what could be improved on, what is being done to accomplish those improvements and what political battles are still being fought today just as much as they were when direct democracy started in America.
We also made some interesting and diverse friends along the way. We had the unique opportunity to see spectacular views, from the bay of San Francisco, to the desert of Phoenix, to the lush terrain of Portland.
We had our fill of flavorful foods and dined in well-established restaurants. Our group was a melting pot of worldly cultures, brewing smoothly as we made our way through the western part of America, laughing at small jokes along the way. Sitting in the hotel room in Portland, with a flight to catch in the early morning, we wish our new friends good luck on their way back to their respective countries.
It will be nice to get back home and sleep in our own beds. We are very energized about that. But goodbyes (and auf wiedersehens) are difficult. The feeling right now is very bittersweet. It's only fitting that my current playlist consists of the song "Hurts So Good" by John Mellencamp.
But for now, Auf wiedersehen (German), Bless (Icelandic), Adjö (Swedish), Paalam na po (Tagalog), Au revoir (French)...
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