Turn the Other Cheek

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)

This piece appeared today in the Washington Post

These days, Californians may be forgiven for feeling as though they are playing host to a dinner party whose guests keep arguing in nastier and nastier terms.

Proposition 8 — the statewide initiative that seeks to add a ban on same-sex marriages to the California constitution, reversing this spring’s court decision legalizing such unions — has turned into a bitter and expensive campaign, even by this sate’s standards. Money has been pouring in on both sides of the issue, from churches, businesses and human rights groups around the country. With more than $60 million raised for and against the initiative, contributions to Prop 8 already exceed the combined total of all donations in the 22 previous campaigns over gay marriage measures in other states around the country.

The outcome is very much in doubt, with polls showing a tight race. But even if supporters of same-sex marriage manage to defeat Prop 8 and preserve the legality of such marriages here, their campaign against Prop 8 may eventually be considered something of a setback for the cause of marriage equality.

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Sick to my Stomach

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)

Watching TV in California these days is enough to make you physically ill. The problem? The ads for and against Prop 2, the initiative to regulate farm animal confinement. The Yes ads, produced by the Humane Society of the United States (perhaps the leading practitioner and defender of ballot initiative campaigns in the country), have — in a small box on the screen (the full screen was deemed too disturbing for viewers) — video of farm animals in distress.

The no campaign warns about salmonella and other diseases if Prop 2 passes and animals are free to walk around. The yes campaign has responded to this by saying that the current use of caged animals actually contributes to salmonella. So, both sides are talking about salmonella.

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The Germans on the Bus

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)

Germans seeking to expand direct democracy face a steep, historical obstacle: the Nazi use of plebiscites has widely discredited direct legislation. But a group of mostly young Germans (many of them with ties to the environmental movement) think the country should have the initiative and referendum all all levels of government.

So, for the last 8 years, they’ve been driving a bus around Germany. They take turns living on the bus, often for months at a time. They visit towns and talk with people about the virtues of direct democracy. They’ve been having success. Use of the direct democracy is now common in German localities. There have been thousands of measures, many of them on the same local development controversies that appear on American ballots. And more and more Gemran states are adopting direct democracy. But no such luck yet at the federal level.

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Think like a philosopher and write like a farmer

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)

Fox and Hounds contributor Joe Mathews is currently attending a conference in Switzerland on direct democracy, and is sending special reports on his experiences in Europe and how they contrast with California.

Think like a philosopher and write like a farmer – That’s the motto of the In-House Drafting Committee, one of the most interesting government offices I’ve come across. The committee handles the official translation of all legislation — including initiatives and referenda — in Switzerland. It’s a crucial role in a country with three major national languages — German, French and Italian. They do not have a light hand–they do serious editing for clarity and for constitutionality. The office has an interesting collection of people: historians, political scientists, linguists and two– count ’em, two — theologians. (They’re considered particularly good on questions of ethics, morality and the original meaning of texts).

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The Swiss Initiative Monk

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)

Fox and Hounds contributor Joe Mathews is currently attending a conference in Switzerland on direct democracy, and is sending special reports on his experiences in Europe and how they contrast with California.

I spent Tuesday morning at the Kafigturm, the former women’s prison in Bern that has been converted into the leading spot for holding political forums, press conferences and meetings. (It’s a short walk from the headquarters of the government and the Parliament). My reporter friends and I visited with Hans-Urs Wili, a Swiss institution who has been spent the last third of a century (today was the day when he reached exactly one-third, and this man knows how to count) as the Swiss referee in matters of direct democracy. His title is head of the department of political rights at the federal chancellery. As such, he advises lawmakers and citizens alike in matters of referenda and initiatives.

His is the office to which you turn in signatures. Just as Liz Hill, the legislature’s non-partisan analyst in California, was long known as the budget nun, Wili is the Swiss initiative monk.

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Residency and the nature of voting

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)

I’m visiting Switzerland this week, touring the country with other journalists interested in direct democracy and speaking at a global conference on ballot initiatives and referenda. Here’s a dispatch from the road:

Over a bratwurst lunch Monday in an Alpine mountain pass, Sustenpass, I had an interesting back-and-forth with Bruno Kaufmann, the Swiss-Swedish journalist who is president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe. The subject? Residency and the nature of voting.

Bruno was born Swiss, and remains a citizen. In fact, he’s considered a citizen in two different Swiss municipalities to which he and his family have ties. But Bruno lives with his wife and children in Sweden. He votes in all three places (though he only gets a Swiss federal ballot in one of the two Swiss towns). Shocked? This is perfectly legal, since citizenship here is granted locally, not federally.

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Public Unions Fighting Public Disclosure

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)

The essence of self-government is the ability to know what your government is doing, who it hires and how it spends its money. But public employee unions have been — shamefully — seeking to prevent the public from learning such information.

Within the last year, state public employee unions sought to block — and then boycott — the Sacramento Bee for publishing the salary data of state workers. There is no more essentially public record than that. Now comes news from San Bernardino that the county is giving unions heads-up about public records requests in an attempt to block them.

Unions there are attacking newspapers that make requests for records on county employees. This is particularly outrageous because public records request from newspapers and the public are often the only way to learn how public employees and their unions behave. Public employee unions are exempt from the federal laws and regulations that require unions representing private sector workers to report on their internal finances to the U.S. Department of Labor.

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Will there be powdered wigs? Thoughts on the Constitutional Convention.

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)

California’s elites are talking, and here’s what they’re saying: this governor can’t get things done, the legislature is hopeless, the entire state government is dysfunctional. (OK, just because they’re elites, they’re not wrong. These are Western Elites, not the dreaded Eastern Elites who are being so, so, so unfair to Sarah Palin). The you know what has hit the fan. The only way to fix this is top-to-bottom reform.

So let’s have a constitutional convention.

What does your blogger think? Put the convention in some place nice (Monterey, maybe, or how about Coronado?) and I’m there, live blogging every second. But while I hate to burst bubbles (OK, I enjoy the occasional bubble burst), I wonder if a constitutional convention is a realistic goal, and whether such a gathering might be more trouble than it’s worth.

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Try California, Guys

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)

Call me a homer, but I think it’s rotten form for major California organizations to have retreats and conferences out of state. It’s particularly bad form if you’re say a union that has just launched a recall of the governor, or a group of Republican legislators holding out on approval of the budget.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., whose leaders have filed a notice of recall against Gov. Schwarzenegger, are holding their convention later this month in Las Vegas. I’m sure they got a good rate and will have a good time. But it’s tone deaf for a high-profile union that is demanding a big pay raise to go to Nevada. Earth to the CCPOA boys: your pay doesn’t come out of thin air. It comes from state tax dollars. State tax dollars are generated from economic activity here in California. Thus, it’s borderline obnoxious to help the Nevada budget while seeking to take money from the California budget. If you want a raise and a new contract, why don’t you swing by Carson City and ask the Nevada legislature for one while you’re at it?

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The Recall Gamble

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)

I think the governor should embrace the recall proposed by the prison guards union.

Read my reasons in today’s Los Angeles Times here.

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