The Interesting Challenge of a Neighborhood Legislature

Joel Fox

Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily


John Cox spent over a million dollars to end money influence in politics. The seeming irony exists because Cox believes the only way to reduce special interest money in candidate campaigns is to make districts so small that big money is not needed to win a seat in the Legislature. To make such a major change in how the state government operates, Cox proposed an initiative  and funded the signature gathering campaign. Last week he filed enough signatures he said to qualify his Neighborhood Legislature plan for the November 2018 ballot.

Cox is an earnest and sincere guy who believes that if a candidate serves a district of only 5000 people in the Assembly or 10,000 people in the Senate the candidate will get to know most of their constituents during a campaign. There will be no need for expensive television or radio ads or direct mail pieces. Even negative campaign ads, a hallmark of modern campaigning, might be reduced or disappear when most voters in a district get to know all the candidates personally.

There is certainly logic to that approach, as far as it goes.

Whether Cox can sell a new fangled idea on legislating with the obvious eye-popping issue of a 12,000-member legislature is a challenge. Unfortunately, for Cox he will have to make his arguments via the traditional campaign methods to reach millions of California voters who must approve his plan on the ballot. There will be plenty of that special interest money that Cox rails about that will be put up against the initiative because those special interests (read insiders) are quite comfortable with the way the legislative system works now.

Of course, that is Cox’s point—and the greatest obstacle to getting voters to understand what he is about. Should Cox, who is a Republican candidate for governor, succeed in making the General Election run-off, he will have the advantage of pitching his plan over and over again to public gatherings and the media that will follow the gubernatorial race.

The number of legislators who go to Sacramento will remain the same: 120, 40 in the Senate and 80 in the Assembly. However, those legislators would be members of Working Committees. These 120 members would be chosen from amongst the 100 legislators elected to seats in each senate or assembly district. That election within an election probably comes with lots or arm-twisting and good, old fashioned politicking.

The Working Committees will create legislation which then must be approved with an up or down vote from the entire Legislature—all 12,000. At this stage of the process no amendments are allowed on the bills.

Another feature of the legislation that could cause headaches is that if a member of the legislature leaves office early, the governor immediately calls a special election to fill the seat. There have been complaints over the years that too many special elections strain the resources of local registrars and upset citizens who think they already deal with enough elections. With a 12,000-member body one could expect multiple special elections.

Cox’s idea doesn’t seem to have an ideological bent and could easily be embraced on both the left and right by those who feel money corrupts politics. The political parties won’t like it, the insiders won’t like it, and there is much to explain to voters. Cox is counting on the populist strain that is running through the electorate.

Still, it would be a tough job to educate the voters on creating this new way to govern. He may get his chance.

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