Letters

From the week of December 21, 2000

The Common Good

Just cause: In response to your article about changes at Arizona Common Cause ("Lost Cause," Amy Silverman, December 7), I would like to correct and clarify some points on behalf of that organization's board.

Arizona Good Government Association, in leaving the Common Cause family, left no unpaid bills behind. Our disagreements with the national organization over fund-raising goals and the allocation of funds between state and national are not debts. In fact, Arizona members of Common Cause give nearly $2 to the national office for every one they get back in support of the state operation or state campaigns. Our directors voted unanimously on November 19 to go it alone, with two former executive directors joining the action. Eleven days later, the national office discontinued the relationship that we had already ended. Our action was based on what we thought was best for future reform activities in Arizona, and based on our assessment of the national association's ability to survive -- it faces insolvency according to an October 23 e-mailed memo circulated widely by the national office. Reform ideas designed to attract younger members (current members are an average age of 73) were proposed over the past two years by the Arizona group but not accepted by the national organization.

Locally, the group has been vitally involved in Arizona reform, and still is. We were an essential partner in the reform coalition that passed the Clean Elections program in 1998, a campaign for which we provided legal research, political assistance, and an audit report of the sources of every campaign dollar used in the prior legislative election.

After that shared victory, we launched the campaign for redistricting reform, which became the Proposition 106 campaign. We convened a public meeting to discuss it, managed a research and drafting committee with the League of Women Voters and Valley Citizen's League, worked with Senator Cunningham and Representative Nichols to put through legislative test versions, recruited national and state legal experts to volunteer their time to improve it, met with and persuaded Grant Woods, Polly Rosenbaum and Jim Pederson to co-chair it, put up and publicized a public Web site where people could see the draft version and suggest improvements (which many did), met with and asked Mr. Pederson, Eddie Basha, and several major organizations to fund it, met with opinion leaders and editorial writers to make sure they didn't see any defects that the rest of us hadn't spotted, brokered the final negotiations between the participants (at a memorable meeting at Grant Woods' office), and a good deal more. Common Cause volunteers made 2,500 signs and put them up (and took them down) through the wee hours of many nights.

The regeneration of our 30-year-old reform organization, Arizona Common Cause, into the Arizona Good Government Association was done to move into the new century as fully engaged as possible with Arizonans of all ages. Our free membership, active program in the Legislature, and programs to develop more inclusive political participation offer new vitality to an organization that had become, by our own self-assessment, effective but dull, strategic but lonely. Making a real change and adapting to the future is always difficult, but we are happy to be moving ahead in this new direction, free to set our own sails.

Dennis Burke, executive director
Arizona Good Government Association

Burke's law: Although I've always been an admirer of Amy Silverman's writing, her article about the demise of Common Cause is far off the mark. While a Common Cause board member during the early 1990s, I became well aware of the tensions that existed between the national office and local branches of Common Cause. Local organizations are supposed to receive permission from the national office for almost any activity they might wish to undertake, yet the office in Washington never consults local groups about the national agenda. Financially, local branches must be committed to support national activities by paying dues that are often perceived by their membership as draining resources from local agendas. Twice a year, during my tenure as a board member, each of us was charged with calling other Common Cause supporters, and requesting financial support for the organization. Our other supporters almost always wanted to know how much of their donation would be sent to Washington, and how much would be used here. Many stated that they would contribute only if all their contribution were used to support Arizona activities. Consequently, it was always difficult to raise the funds needed to support the national office of Common Cause.

There are two ways that legislation regarding government reform can be achieved. One is through legislation that depends on constant lobbying at the Legislature, which, in the past, was the modus operandi of Common Cause. This procedure has generally been unsuccessful and has resulted in a new strategy among reform groups -- citizen-initiated referenda. The latter are far more difficult and expensive to achieve, entailing, as they do, massive local fund raising and the formation of coalitions, often of somewhat disparate interest groups, that must work together over extended periods of time. As compared with previous lobbying activities at the Legislature, which led to little or no legislative breakthroughs, referenda strategy developed by coalitions either headed by or including Common Cause have resulted in the passage of Proposition 200 (Clean Elections) and Proposition 106 (Independent Redistricting).

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