US: Activism: Boot Camp for Ballot Initiatives

Peace through Reason (prop1@prop1.org)
Tue, 14 Apr 1998 08:56:31 -0400


The URL for this story is:

http://www.csmonitor.com/durable/1998/04/14/fp4s1-csm.htm


<center><bold><bigger>California's New Boot Camp for Ballot Initiatives

</bigger>The Oaks Project wants to help people take a leading role in
American politics.

</bold>Daniel B. Wood 

Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

</center><center>TUESDAY, APRIL 14, 1998 

</center>

Santa Monica, Calif-- During the midday rush outside Ralph's supermarket,
David Potorti leans forward on one foot toward scurrying passersby:
"Twenty seconds of your time, sir, that's all I need."


With both June and November elections bearing down, Mr. Potorti is
collecting signatures for a ballot initiative. But he's not like most
signature sweepers. A ribbon dangling from his jacket proclaims: "I'm not
paid to collect your signature."


Instead, he's is a part of The Oaks Project, an organization that is
trying to help Americans become political leaders by teaching them more
about the democratic process

and giving them the tools to start their own members receive training
from seasoned activists on how to fund-raise, recruit supporters, deal
with the media, and put issues on the ballot.


In return for this expertise, members must raise $1,000 a year for the
project and complete 15 hours of volunteer service a month. This can be
time spent holding a neighborhood discussion on how to use the Freedom of
Information Act, talking to high schoolers about registering to vote, or
- as Potorti is doing on this day - collecting signatures for ballots
that either the member or the Oaks support.


Call for volunteers


The project is looking for 1,000 volunteers across California in an
effort to get people who feel disenfranchised by the two-party, big-money
system back into politics - and to help them make their voices heard.


"I was feeling a little angry, frustrated, and depressed that the world
was a little out of control and that the average person was pretty much
irrelevant," says Potorti, a TV producer.


He first heard about the Oaks a year ago, when he saw an advertisement in
a magazine

for a "dynamic new citizens' organization" headed by long-established
consumer activist Ralph Nader. After attending a meeting, "I felt
instantly better - that this was a solution to how I and others around me
were feeling," he adds.


For many people like Potorti, this feeling of unease has grown as more
and more money has made its way into politics during the past few
decades, leading them to worry that the individual citizen's voice has
been stifled.


But the Oaks is aimed at teaching its members how to cope with these
issues. "[It] is attempting to permanently develop an ongoing grass-roots
institution to deal with the systemic shortcomings of democracy," says
Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield,
Minn. "That's never been done."


A major focus of The Oaks Project in California is the initiative process
itself. The process was introduced 90 years ago as a way for citizens to
initiate legislation that their legislators can't or won't. But in recent
years, critics have claimed that it has been co-opted by large
corporations or wealthy individuals - the only ones with enough financial
backing to bankroll the expensive proposition of

getting 433,000 signatures to qualify.


Citizens' activists have been outmaneuvered and outspent by wealthy
corporations for years, says Jim Shultz, executive director of The
Democracy Center and author of "The Initiative Cookbook," a book on
California's ballot wars. "It's part of why politics here has become so
cynical.... The Oaks Project is giving us the hope that there is enough
idealism left to keep the idea of participatory democracy alive."


Getting involved


Indeed, Oaks members become strong advocates for the initiatives they
choose to back. For the November ballot, Potorti is collecting signatures
for a measure retracting parts of a utility-deregulation bill he feels
was sneaked through the state legislature in 1996.


To do so, he is spending free time on Saturdays, as well as noon lunch
hours, standing at places like Ralph's or knocking on doors.


"I was very daunted at first with the prospect of engaging people," says
Potorti, who adds that he has had to develop people skills as well as
understand issues and procedures more thoroughly. "But I am finding
people are congratulating me and thanking me for doing this."


With chapters in five California cities, The Oaks Project seeks to
establish itself in California before branching out into other states,
organizers say. With small, paid staffs of about three or four in
different cities, the project has backing from thousands of small donors
mostly found by Oaks volunteers themselves.


A one-night blitz of fund-raising dinners statewide in November netted
$80,000 in contributions. "When our trained volunteers put their heads
together, they can raise some serious cash," says Oaks spokesman Bill
Gallagher.


Although the goal of 1,000 participating Oaks volunteers sounds small to
some, organizers stress the idea is to plant seeds of activism that will
sprout everywhere. Like Potorti, nearly all are trained professionals
with full-time jobs in other fields.


"We are not teaching Oaks [members] just how to be activists themselves,"
says spokesman Doug Heller. "We are teaching them how to empower others
so that this thing can grow exponentially."


Some observers say that may be an uphill battle. "It is very hard to
build a movement around the principle of participation rather than a
specific policy issue," says the Democracy Center's Jim Shultz. "But it's
possible that in taking on both issues and trying to leave the machinery
of participation in place, the Oaks will become a model for others to
follow."


For Potorti, success has already been achieved. "I have a new confidence
about myself and democracy that I didn't have before," he says. "I'm
starting to care a little more about what the world is going to look like
and that I can have some influence in making it better."


For further information:


    California Voter Foundation -- 
http://www.calvoter.org/cvt.home.html

    American Voter Coalition -- http://www.avc.org/