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Dumbest Donation Ever?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

If I were one of the people behind that $11 million anonymous donation from an Arizona-based nonprofit to the No on 30/Yes on 32 campaign, I wouldn’t want anyone to know my name either.

Because I wouldn’t want people to know that I’m that stupid.

Seriously, do you remember a more counterproductive donation than this one? In this case, the $11 million is being given in such a way that it destroys whatever chances Prop 32, the measure that anonymous donors are supposedly supporting, might have had of passing.

Prop 32 is being sold as campaign finance reform. An anonymous donation steps on that message; the huge, overwhelmingly negative publicity the donation has drawn to 32 has to be worth more than the $11 million. And in a larger sense, the donation exposes the core of what’s wrong with Prop 32 and other attempts at what is sometimes called “Paycheck Protection” as a way to blunt union power.

So what’s wrong, you ask?

Many Californians have their gripes against public employee unions, and I have many of my own. The knock is they play too big a role in California politics. That’s true – but part of that role can’t currently be replaced by anyone else.

The role is that: imperfectly and incompletely, their resources are often the strongest (and only force) in politics speaking up for citizens who aren’t wealthy. Public employee unions are the financial and organizational backbone behind any number of progressive causes and of the Democratic Party. As a result, they end up supporting views that otherwise would get less airing and people who otherwise wouldn’t be heard.

It would be better if public employees unions didn’t have the power and reach they have now. And it sure would be nice if these unions couldn’t distort elections and public policy to serve their interests. But a solution like Prop 32 – which limits the unions’ political clout – is the wrong way to go about it.
If you want to limit public employees unions, you need to build institutions and structures that can replace what they provide.

What sort of institutions and structures? You could write a book about this question, but what’s needed are publicly and privately financed channels for engagement at all levels of government, new kinds of deliberative processes like citizens juries, and richer, stronger public media.

Those kinds of institutions and structure, if well designed, could provide a way for working people and poorer people to learn, participate and engage directly, and to protect their views and interests in powerful ways.

But the backers of Prop 32 aren’t building those kinds of structures – or even trying to. Instead, they are giving and accepting an anonymous donation, an act that will confirm the worst stereotypes about critics of public employee unions. If the backers of Prop 32 want true political reform, and less domination by public employee unions, they should give the $11 million back. Right away.

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