The Millionaire's Club

Why leave ballot initiatives to the rich?

Coloradans have three gentlemen to thank for keeping Colorado’s initiative process alive and well this year. And no, perennial anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce isn’t one of them.

Of the five initiatives scheduled to appear on the Nov. 5 ballot, four are being bankrolled by millionaires. While not household names, Rutt Bridges, Jared Polis and Ron Unz have collectively contributed nearly $1.4 million to qualify initiatives that aim to expand voting by mail, require candidates to petition onto primary ballots, allow voter registration on Election Day and end bilingual education. Without their money, voters would likely face only one initiative this November, a campaign-finance reform measure sponsored by Colorado Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

The capturing of the initiative process by millionaires is a worrisome development. Whatever happened to ordinary citizens driving the process? Though not a resident of Colorado, the idiosyncratic Unz has the most name recognition of the three. Unz’s measure aims to dismantle bilingual education in Colorado’s public schools, replacing it with English immersion. The Silicon Valley software developer made it his mission in life to eradicate bilingual education after he failed to oust California Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary. In 1998, Unz contributed more than $750,000 to his successful anti-bilingual measure in California, Prop. 227.

Infusing massive amounts of money into initiative campaigns outside of California is nothing new for Unz. The 41-year-old is subsidizing an anti-bilingual education measure in Massachusetts this year. In 2000, he sponsored the passage of a similar measure in Arizona. In Colorado, Unz has already lent his issue committee, English for the Children in Colorado, $450,000 to qualify the measure. As of July, no one else had contributed money to his issue committee.

Polis, the underwriter of the Election Day Registration Amendment, is obviously committed to enhancing the educational opportunities of Colorado’s youth. In 2000, he contributed $47,500 to the proponents of Amendment 23, the successful initiative that provided additional funding for K-12 education. The following year he established the eponymous Jared Polis Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation that brings technology into public schools.

The 27-year-old Polis has cash to burn. In 1996, his family sold its dot-com greeting card business, Blue Mountain Arts, to the now bankrupt Excite@Home for $780 million. In 2000, Polis used but a fraction of the proceeds – nearly $1.3 million – to narrowly secure an at-large (and unpaid) seat on the Colorado State Board of Education. Polis has made financial contributions to dozens of Democratic candidates running for state office and contributed more than $47,000 to state party organs in 2000. More recently, he greased the soft-money wheels of the federal Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee with $25,000.

Polis’ straightforward initiative would permit citizens to register and cast ballots on election day. Six states – Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire,

Wisconsin and Wyoming – currently permit voters to register on election day. The amendment, though, is not Polis’ brainchild. Rather, it was conceived by Taco Bell heir Rob McKay of San Francisco, who is sponsoring his own election-day registration initiative in California this year. As of July, Polis had contributed $395,000 to his own issue committee, Colorado Voters, including a tax-deductible contribution of $170,000 he routed through another of his non-profits, Colorado Youth Charity. Besides Polis, only five other individuals had contributed a combined $100 to his issue committee.

Bridges, a geophysicist and chairman of a venture capital company, Quest International Management, is the sole contributor to Bighorn Ballot, the sponsor of two statutory governance initiatives. One measure would replace caucus/assembly candidate nominations, requiring instead that candidates petition their way onto primary ballots. The other would require election officials to mail ballots to registered voters, allowing them to return their marked ballots by mail, at designated drop-off sites, or at the polls on Election Day.

Bridges has doled out $550,800 to place the two initiatives on the November ballot. No one else has contributed money to either measure. A generous backer of Democratic candidates over the years, Bridges is the acting chairman and CEO of the non-profit Bighorn Center, a think tank founded in Denver in 1999. Much of Bridges’ money to the campaign has stayed in the Bighorn family. Bighorn Governmental Affairs director and former legislator Peggy Lamm is earning $6,538 a month as campaign manager. Scott Lamm, the son of former Gov. Dick Lamm (a Bighorn Center director), has received more than $210,000 to oversee the collection of signatures.

Is big money necessary to place initiatives on the ballot in Colorado? This is certainly not the first time a few wealthy individuals have financed ballot measures. In 1912, well-heeled individuals – including William G. Evans, Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller – used “citizen lawmaking” to advance their pet projects. More recently, Douglas Bruce loaned his Tax Cut 2000 committee more than $300,000 in his failed attempt to eliminate a host of taxes. In 1998, Gary Boyce and his Stockman Water Company contributed more than $1 million to a pair of unsuccessful ballot measures, and Phil Anschutz gave more than $400,000 to a successful initiative regulating corporate hog farms. Some people argue that the sizeable number of valid signatures needed to qualify a measure in Colorado – 80,571 in 2002 – inhibits grassroots initiative campaigns. But over the years, numerous citizen groups have qualified ballot measures without relying on a magnanimous sugar daddy. While Common Cause, like the other campaigns this year, used paid signature-gatherers this summer to qualify its measure, it has drawn the bulk of its financial contributions from its roughly 3,000 in-state members.

Now there’s nothing illegal about rich individuals trying to shape public policy via the initiative. The Supreme Court has ruled there is no quid pro quo possibility of corruption in ballot campaigns, and the First Amendment protects unlimited contributions made by wealthy individuals (and corporations and labor unions) to ballot issue committees. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that a majority of voters will support the initiatives at the polls.

Unlike in 2000, when citizen groups circumvented our non-responsive state legislature and placed initiatives on the ballot that closed the gun loophole, funded public schools and sought to control sprawl, there has been no public outcry this year to modify our electoral laws or alter teaching methods of our public schools. Where’s the public outrage to change these policies? Where’s the grassroots mobilization to change the status quo?

Moreover, the financiers of these measures all seem to have ulterior motives for becoming involved in the initiative process. As former Denverite Linda Chavez says of Unz’s crusade, it “keeps his name in the news. It keeps him viable.” The same goes for Polis, who is clearly trying to build name recognition as he bides time before running for higher elective office. For Bridges, the two election-related initiatives generate positive publicity for his centrist think tank.

Should Coloradans – liberals, conservatives or independents – be satisfied with a political process that is being co-opted by a few rich guys? Progressive reformers never intended citizen lawmaking to be a private club for wealthy elites. Rather, they envisioned the process as a release valve to be used when the legislature failed to respond to citizen demands. Isn’t it time for average citizens of Colorado to reclaim the initiative process for themselves?

Daniel A. Smith teaches American politics at the University of Denver. He has written numerous articles on the initiative process and is author of the 1998 book “Tax Crusaders and the Politics of Direct Democracy.” Smith can be reached by e-mail atdasmith@du.edu



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