Autograph Hound

Derrick Lee is the most powerful political figure you've never heard of


David Broder's new book, Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money, tells the story of Lee Petition Management -- even though Derrick Lee and his business are never mentioned by name.

Broder, a veteran political reporter for the Washington Post, argues that the initiative process in this country is deeply flawed -- that it was designed to allow citizens an independent voice in government through grassroots organizing but instead has ushered in yet another era in which money dictates public policy.

Many people who sign petitions don't realize the carriers are likely paid for each signature.
Paolo Vescia
Many people who sign petitions don't realize the carriers are likely paid for each signature.
"To me, this is a cakewalk, a gravy train," says petition circulator Austin Musgrove, right. "I don't have anybody over my back, telling me to pound, pound, pound, work hard."
Paolo Vescia
"To me, this is a cakewalk, a gravy train," says petition circulator Austin Musgrove, right. "I don't have anybody over my back, telling me to pound, pound, pound, work hard."

In Arizona, there are four ways to change a law: The Legislature can vote with the governor's approval; the Legislature can put a question on the ballot; any citizen can launch an initiative, in which signatures are gathered (signatures of 10 percent of the total voters in the last gubernatorial election is required; 15 percent if the initiative seeks to amend the state Constitution) and, again, the question is put before the people; or any citizen can launch a referendum, in which the people are asked to reverse a law already passed by the Legislature. To qualify a referendum, only 5 percent of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election is needed, but the signatures must be collected within 90 days of the law's passage.

Only 24 states, mainly in the West, allow initiatives. The idea was borrowed from Switzerland and born of a 19th-century movement, favored by progressives and populists, designed to curb the power of special interests who controlled legislatures.

And for some time, it was a good idea, Broder acknowledges. One of Arizona's first initiatives -- on the ballot in 1912, the year of statehood -- mandated putting headlights on trains. Another gave women the right to vote -- nearly a decade before suffrage was granted nationally.

Dave Berman, a political science professor at Arizona State University, has done extensive research into the history of the state's initiatives. Berman believes that initiatives are still a good idea. He maintains there's got to be an alternative to the Arizona Legislature.

"I think Broder's up a creek," he says. "The initiative is doing exactly what it should do. If the Legislature isn't responsive, we should be going to the ballot like this. I'm really not quite as alarmed. If he thinks special-interest groups have nothing to do with what the Legislature does, he's crazy."

In recent Arizona political history, the Legislature and the people who elect its members have been oddly discordant. Legislators vote to legalize Freon and debate whether to mandate gun training in schools, while the people vote for campaign finance reform and health care for the poor. Arizona voters go to the polls to vote for measures the Legislature refuses to pass, initiatives such as medical marijuana (twice), and against measures the lawmakers do pass: tort reform and the so-called "takings law" that threatened the federal Endangered Species Act. In 1998, Arizona voters even approved the Voter Protection Act (another Lee Petition Management client), which prohibits the Legislature from tinkering with initiatives and referenda already approved by the people.

But Berman does agree with Broder that it takes a lot money to get on the ballot these days. While candidates have contribution limits, there are no such limits for initiatives.

And even when the outcomes are potentially good for the little guy, it's often all too apparent that some big guy's pockets are being lined. "Healthy Children, Healthy Families," an initiative headed for November's ballot that would use Arizona's share of the multistate tobacco settlement for health care, would obviously benefit the Arizona Hospital Association, one of its main funders. The initiative that would deregulate the local telephone business is actually the brain child of US West.

Business tycoons George Soros, John Sperling and Peter Lewis use the initiative process as their own private laboratory, funding campaigns around the country -- including Arizona's two medical marijuana initiatives -- to the tune of millions.

Getting an initiative passed is neither cheap nor easy. You've got to hire a campaign staff, fund a media campaign and find experts to write the proposed law. Pay for mailings, signs, phone banks. Strategize, spin, lobby. And before most of that occurs, one of the largest single expenses is signatures. Gone are the days when friendly neighbors walk door-to-door with petitions after work; even the Sierra Club, one of the best-organized grassroots interests around, has to supplement its volunteers' efforts with paid petition circulators.

In 1998, the Sierra Club learned a bitter lesson in the foibles of signature gathering. The group launched its anti-growth initiative late in March 1998, which gave it only five months to gather signatures. Although the group had budgeted some money to buy signatures, it fell far short because as the demand for signatures from different groups goes up, so does the price.

"Paid circulators will carry many petitions to make their time really worthwhile, and so when you're the low campaign on the totem pole in terms of the amount that you're paying . . . yours is the last one sometimes that they will ask people to sign," says Renee Guillory, campaign coordinator for the Citizens Growth Management Initiative, the Sierra Club's latest such effort.

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