A newly released New America Foundation poll indicates strong support for a Citizens Assembly to reform California's political system. The poll questions and results can be found here; the analysis here.
When he was elected to the state Assembly six years ago, Keith Richman was no wide-eyed idealist.
A physician, Richman already had built an $80 million health care group and been involved for years in local political issues when he won election to the Assembly in 2000 as a moderate Republican with an optimistic view of politics. Two years later, he won a majority of the vote as the candidate for mayor of the San Fernando Valley during the failed cityhood effort.
"I went up there (to Sacramento) to try to solve problems," the Northridge lawmaker said in a lengthy interview last week. "But the problem in Sacramento for a moderate is that most of the time moderates lose.
"What I found out very quickly is that the special interests - on both sides of the aisle - pretty much call all the shots."
As the 52-year-old Richman serves his final months in office under term limits, he is reflective on his tenure and said he has no regrets - only frustration with a system hemmed in by partisan politics and ideology.
Despite the constraints, Richman is widely credited with playing a key role in pushing through workers' compensation reform, crafting a plan to help the state deal with a $30 billion deficit, and emphasizing state infrastructure investment.
Richman also joined with several Democratic lawmakers in proposing compromises on energy, tax and health care issues facing the state.
But his frustration grew quickly even though Richman, a rare moderate in the Legislature, started on a fast track and earned the title Rookie Legislator of the Year his first year in the Assembly.
He quickly began to hear that Republican Party leaders - as well as the anti-tax and conservative ideologues - did not take kindly to his open discussions with moderate Democrats.
Richman said his Democratic colleagues were receiving the same complaints from public-employee unions and trial lawyers.
"It got so bad that at one point a group of us moderates - Democrat and Republican - left the Capitol to meet so no one would see us discussing issues," Richman said.
"It was so unusual to have people from both parties meeting to discuss solutions to issues. And when folks heard about it, there were editorials written against us."
Bob Stern, of the Center for Governmental Studies, said the lessons Richman learned are a fact of political life these days in Sacramento.
"Moderates are a dying breed," Stern said. "Particularly in the Legislature. You see the governor being more moderate these days, but that's because he wasn't challenged in his primary.
"I am not sure if Arnold Schwarzenegger would be governor if it wasn't for the recall," Stern said. "He didn't have to run in a Republican primary. The same problems hurt Keith Richman. He tried to reach across the aisle to Democrats and he was shot down."
Richman ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for treasurer this year, and thinks his moderate positions hurt him.
"We had a very-low-turnout election," Richman said. "I think it was less than 25 percent for Republicans. That means it was just the hard-core conservatives and they were not going to vote for me."
"It seems like the public has largely given up on the political system. They don't have any trust in Sacramento and the system is collapsing from its own weight. It's like dying from a thousand cuts.
"And I worry about our future. We have tremendous unfunded liability for pensions, but how do we make it important to the people and engage them again in the political process? They are fed up and apathetic and cynical. I saw firsthand why they are so cynical.
"We are at a time when our representative democracy is broken and we need to find a way to reinvigorate it."
Richman, who is married with two daughters, said he is uncertain what he will do after his time in the Legislature is up in December, but hopes to concentrate on government reform and pursuing changes that will reduce partisanship in Sacramento.
"When I look at the problems when I came here - pensions, the budget, workers' comp, education, the health care system, the economy - not much has been done," Richman said.
"We were able to get some workers' comp reforms through, but that was only because of the threat of an initiative that would have forced something on us."
Richman attributes the problems to a variety of causes - from term limits to the unintended consequences of campaign-reform measures such as Proposition 34, which limited donations to candidates but not political parties or outside groups.
"With term limits, the special interests can just wait you out," Richman said. "After I got elected, some of them came to me with demands and I ignored them. They couldn't defeat me in my district, but all they had to do was wait and I'm gone with term limits."
As for campaign reform, Richman said all it did was strengthen the role of political parties and independent expenditure committees.
"When you limit what a candidate can raise, they have to go somewhere to get their funding," Richman said. "That means political parties and special-interest groups."
Richman and Stern, among others, believe one option might be a more independent redistricting system that would provide more balance in districts and set up competitive races.
Because of the way districts are now drawn, Richman said, most races are effectively decided during the primaries.
Another possibility would be creation of a Citizens Assembly to monitor how the state is governed.
Richman has been pushing a state constitutional amendment to convene such a session, but it has been locked up in committees.
"I don't know if it will ever get through," Richman said. "I'm afraid it just might stay bottled up."
GOV. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Year of Reform" came and went without any discernible change to the status quo in 2005. The state Legislature remains unduly polarized, captive to special interests and unwilling to take on many of the most complex and daunting problems facing California.
Schwarzenegger's "reform" effort morphed into a piecemeal package of worthy (independent redistricting), seriously flawed (a rigid budget formula) and transparently politically motivated (restrictions on union fundraising) measures that were all shot down by voters in November. There were two overriding messages from the electorate. One was disenchantment with Schwarzenegger and his "I-am-king'' bravado of the moment. The other was a frustration that voters were being asked, yet again, to address issues that should be resolved in Sacramento.
So, what will it take to produce a Legislature that will do its job?
Let's start here:
-- Politicians should not be drawing their own district boundaries, shielding themselves from competitive elections. The result is a more polarized and less accountable Legislature. California should follow the
lead of other states where redistricting is handled independent of the self-interested legislators.
-- The voter-approved term limits of 1990 are too draconian: six years in the Assembly, eight in the Senate. These limits, which have been valuable in increasing diversity in the Capitol, should be loosened a bit to allow legislators time to develop expertise in complex issues -- as well as a greater motivation to focus beyond the concern of the moment.
-- The June 6 primary was a case study in what is wrong with our campaign-finance system: The special interests spent wildly and shot recklessly; the candidates made a mockery of spending limits in various ways and the public was subjected to a mud fest that depressed voter turnout to near-record lows. Candidates and would-be candidates at all levels complain that the fiscal demands of modern politics are adding to the length, stress -- and unseemliness -- of running for public office. It's time to overhaul the
system so that candidates spend less time raising money and more time talking with voters.
What are the chances that these, or any other, significant reforms will emerge from Sacramento?
"Slim to none," said Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, a Pittsburg Democrat, who will be termed out of office this year.
Canciamilla said he came to Sacramento six years ago "naively thinking" that legislators could work together to solve problems. It wasn't long before his inclination for bipartisan outreach made him a pariah among his fellow Democrats. Too often, he said, legislators' response to a crisis is to make sure "the other guy got the blame."
Assemblyman Keith Richman, a Republican doctor from Northridge, is equally pessimistic about what he saw in his six years in the Capitol.
"Our representative democracy is broken," is Richman's diagnosis.
Canciamilla and Richman are promoting a measure that might allow these reforms to incubate without interference from a status quo that has proved remarkably adept at fending off change. Their bill (ACA28) would commission a "citizens' assembly" to develop a reform package that would go directly to the ballot. It is modeled after a citizens' assembly in British Columbia that proposed a system of "proportional representation" in elections; itfell just short of the 60-percent threshold needed for passage in May 2005.
It will be on the ballot again this year.
Here's how the California plan would work:
-- Two representatives, one man and one woman, would be selected from arandomly drawn pool in each of the 80 Assembly districts. Elected officials,their relatives, lobbyists, campaign consultants and other politicos would be ineligible.
-- Members of the citizens' assembly would be paid $1,000, plus travel expenses, for their part-time, yearlong exploration of the state's electoral and campaign processes. They would then develop a package of reforms - or not, in the unlikely event they find nothing wrong with the system -- to send to the Legislature, which could offer its comments, but could not change any of the citizens' recommendations.
-- The citizens' recommendations would then be put to a statewide vote.
How has the status quo in the Democrat-controlled Assembly reacted to the Canciamilla-Richman citizens'-assembly plan?
You guessed it. The Assembly leadership has not even allowed a public hearing on ACA28. Meanwhile, bills to accomplish some of these reforms -- independent redistricting, public financing of elections -- are barely
showing signs of life.
"The Legislature is not going to reform itself," Canciamilla said.
Assuming ACA28 goes nowhere this year -- which is what Richman and Canciamilla are betting -- advocates of a citizens' assembly are contemplating a signature-gathering campaign to put the concept on the ballot in 2008.
There is no guarantee that a citizens' assembly will produce the electoral reforms this state so desperately needs -- or even if it does, that the special interests and major parties will not ambush them at the polls -- but it's worth a try. It's outrageous and patently undemocratic that the ruling Democrats in the Assembly will not allow Richman and Canciamilla the courtesy of a public hearing on ACA28.
It's also instructive as to why this populist revolt is necessary.
Express your views
For more information on the citizens' assembly proposal, and the main group behind it, the New America Foundation, go to www.NewAmerica.net/political reform.
You can express your views about the Assembly leadership's failure to hold a hearing on ACA28 by sending an e-mail to Speaker Fabian Núñez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Summary: Governing Magazine, the leading magazine read by state lawmakers, publishes a positive review of Canciamilla and Richman, featuring their citizens assembly proposal. There are some 10,000 state legislators in the U.S. To get a profile in Governing Magazine is a big deal.
Publication: Governing Magazine
Title: THE MOD SQUAD: Two California legislators pursue long-shot reform
Date: February 2006 (note: the article was in the February issue, but I only received an online version today)
By: Alan Greenblatt
Summary: A long, glossy, magazine style report on Canciamilla and Richman's Citizens Assembly proposal.
Publication: Policy Today
Title: Cutting Out The Middleman
Date: March 6, 2006
By: Raheem Hosseini
For the article, click here. Note: This is a large file (1.4 megabytes) that includes the entire publication. The article you want begins on page 14. The easiest way to get to page 14 is to click the number 14 box in the upper right. This file links to the publisher's site, so you may get a popup asking you whether you want to allow that link to be made. If you want to see the file, you'll have to allow the link to be made.
Summary: David Davenport, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, pens an op-ed supporting Canciamilla and Richman’s proposed citizens assembly that is published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Publication: San Francisco Chronicle
Title: The case for a citizens assembly
Date: February 12, 2006
By: David Davenport
The key dates for moving ahead a California citizens assembly ballot initiative in 2006 would be as follows:
November 9, 2006—the election.
June 29, 2006—The last day to qualify an initiative for the November ballot.
April 21, 2006—The last day to submit signatures for random sample verification (meeting the full count deadline is already impossible)
March 15, 2006—Earliest day at which it would be possible to begin gathering signatures. This is 35 days from today, February 8 (35 days are required for California’s Attorney General and Legislative Analyst to prepare a title and summary for the initiative).