The Terminator, too

Our deep-pocket initiatives

What do Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rob Reiner, George Soros, Rob McKay, Ron Unz and Tim Draper have in common? The answer, as most California political junkies know, is that they’re all rich men who’ve become big players in California initiative campaigns and, in some cases, in other states as well.

Their politics are different and so are their motives. As one veteran political consultant said, “They don’t come at it the same way.” But they’re all in the same game.

It’s something we’ve never really seen before in American politics. In this age of self-selected candidates for high office — Bill Simon and Al Checchi in California, Jon Corzine in New Jersey — deep pockets are a real asset if not an absolute qualification. It’s hard to imagine any of them dreaming about starting at the top in politics if they weren’t rich enough to put big dollars into their own campaigns.

But the phenomenon is becoming even more evident in the initiative process.

In the case of movie actor Schwarzenegger, a Republican who flirted last year with the idea of running for governor, the initiative is a proposed measure for the November ballot that would sharply increase state funding for before-school and after-school programs — to as much as $550 million a year. The Terminator, who so far has kicked in $1 million of his own money for the campaign, turned in 750,000 signatures last week, easily enough to qualify for the November ballot.

Schwarzenegger’s measure is similar in spirit to actor-director Reiner’s Proposition 10, passed by voters in 1998, which increased tobacco taxes to pay for an ambitious range of new state and county children’s programs. The difference is that Schwarzenegger’s measure would raise no new taxes. It would simply suck money from other programs. And, of course, it could help establish his credentials as a compassionate candidate if he decides to run in 2006.

In the case of McKay, a San Francisco philanthropist whose father started Taco Bell, the cause is an initiative that would allow for same-day voter registration for people with proper identification. A half-dozen other states already allow it. Making it possible in California could have some effect in raising California’s dismally low election turnouts — a record low at the primary last month. It also would allow all citizens to vote in any party primary they wish.

Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who challenged Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary and briefly contemplated a run for the Senate in 1999, has turned his campaigns against bilingual education into a career. After passage of Proposition 227 in 1998, he helped pass a similar measure in Arizona and is now campaigning for 227 clones in Massachusetts and Colorado.

But unlike billionaire financier Soros, who with two deep-pocket partners bankrolled medical marijuana and other drug reform initiatives in a growing list of states, Unz is not shy of the spotlight. The Hungarian-born Soros, who’s funded major philanthropic efforts all over the world, particularly in Eastern Europe, appears to harbor no personal political ambitions.

Not surprisingly, most of the initiative capitalists began as political amateurs. But they know how to buy help, and there are plenty of political consultants around to provide it. Occasionally in the past, consultants shopped their own schemes to potential backers. That’s how the California Lottery got started.

That doesn’t seem to be the case here. Plenty of consultants, media advisers, signature collectors and pollsters are happy to get their hands into some of those deep pockets. But of all the recent ballot causes funded by wealthy individuals, only two — Unz’s campaign reform initiative and the 2000 voucher initiative funded by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Draper — lost. Four were winners.

But what makes the initiative so tempting for people with causes is that it’s a relatively cheap way to make policy. For $1 million to $2 million, almost anything can make it to the ballot. That’s far cheaper and generally more reliable than conventional politics. And while a lot of money doesn’t always carry the day for a measure, it’s a fast way to become a player. Those who don’t have the money never get to the table.

It’s a hell of a way to run a democracy. Yet having the Terminator or Soros buy Californians an initiative is hardly more reprehensible than getting them from the Republican Party or labor unions or the insurance industry. And when a Reiner embraces a cause, it’s more admirable than having a Wilson grab someone else’s cause for his own political ends.

Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, once suggested half facetiously that the state should merely charge $1 million to get anything on the ballot; then it could collect some of the money that now goes to the initiative industry. The other day he upped the figure to $1.5 million. But almost anyone with the cash can do it.

About the Writer

Peter Schrag can be reached at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852-0779 or at [email protected] .

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