Initiative would create citizen Legislature

JULY 8, 2011


A former Republican presidential candidate and long-time political reformer said Wednesday that he plans on leading a statewide initiative effort designed to expand the number of politicians in the state by reducing the size of political districts for Assembly and state Senate candidates. The idea is modeled roughly on the New Hampshire House of Representatives, which has the nation’s highest 400 members — each which enjoy the modest salary of $200 for every two years.

The goal, advanced by John Cox, a Chicago-area activist and businessman who now resides a good bit of the year in San Diego County, is to create more of a citizen legislature. “Everyone can see the money chase is corrupting the political process,” he told me Wednesday at the Hyatt in Sacramento, after he met with legislators in the Capitol. He doesn’t believe that politicians are necessarily corrupt, “but the system is corrupting.”

I wrote about the idea of expanding representation in this column in April after meeting with representation activist Michael Warnken at the Libertarian Party convention in Lake Tahoe, where I was keynote speaker. Warnken joined us at the Hyatt Wednesday. Consider these facts (based on Warnken’s data) that I reported: “There’s one representative for every 29,151 Iowans (as of 2008 data) and one Assembly member for every 459,458 Californians (now 483,000). There’s an elected representative in New Hampshire’s house for every 3,290 of that state’s residents, which is the best level of representation in the nation.”

California has an enormous representation problem, which is why the Libertarian Party approved a resolution calling for representation reform. But this idea should appeal to a wide number of voters whatever their political persuasion. Unlike many other reforms, such as the ones advocated by moderate business groups such as the Bay Area Council (constitutional convention, open primary, majority-vote budgets, etc.), this is not designed to get a specific political outcome. The council, for instance, tried rigging the election rules so that Californians would elect more “moderates” from both major parties.

Rather, Cox’s idea is designed to make it easier for average Californians, whatever their political persuasion, to know their elected officials and influence public policy. California’s districts are so enormous that there is little chance for average voters to know their representative or to have any influence. Only professionals, who can afford campaigns financed by special interests (unions, corporations, environmentalists) have a chance to run for office. Where I used to live in Los Angeles County, there were approximately 2 million residents for every county supervisor. How representative is that? Such a situation enhances the influence of special interests and turns money into the most important political factor. The coming initiative only deals with the state Legislature, but Cox believes the concept can be expanded to the county board and other elected bodies.

In a true citizen legislature, money doesn’t matter very much. Regular people with regular jobs can run for office. People will know the legislator. It’s easy to throw the bum out. Local concerns win the day. It’s a brilliant way to reform the system and it will create a more responsive Legislature. It offers no threat to the state’s dominant Democrats given that there are more Democratic voters than Republican ones. But it does offer a specific threat to special interests, and unions in particular, which will be sure to campaign against Cox’s initiative, if he raises the funds to get it on the ballot. He is looking toward next November.

Cox said the initiative language, still being discussed, would probably be something like this: The size of districts shall be no more than 10,000 people for the Assembly and 20,000 for the Senate. He foresees a very large Legislature and an executive council for each body similar in size to the current Legislature that would do much of the day-to-day work. A key point is that the legislators would not get full-time staff and big budgets as they do now. Yes, there would be more politicians, but there would be a smaller class of professional politicians.

The thinking is that regular people, who work in regular jobs, would then dominate Sacramento. These citizen legislators would better understand the needs of their constituents and would be less likely to serve as the cat’s paw for unions and big corporations. Cox notes that about 2,000 bills are introduced in each legislative session. He believes that number would go down even as the number of representatives would go up because the newly elected legislators would be there for the right reasons.

In the current system, he said, voting percentages are declining because people know there is no way they can affect the political process. After his reform, “people will come out of the woodwork to participate.” His argument to the Left: Under this system, the rich won’t have all the power. To the Right: Broader representation will lead to less social engineering and better fiscal management. To everyone: All of a sudden, money won’t be as big of a factor and lobbyists won’t be able to have the control they now have.

Perhaps this is a bit idealistic, but the Founding Fathers would be aghast at how unrepresentative our supposedly representative democracy has become, especially in California. Here’s an initiative that might get mocked at first, but upon closer examination it makes an inordinate amount of sense and should appeal to people from every political persuasion who are seriously interested in reform. Stay tuned for more on this one and for the resurgent career of John Cox.

Related Articles

Gov. and Leg leaders retreat on public records act mess

June 21, 2013 By Katy Grimes SACRAMENTO — California lawmakers have reversed course on the sneaky attempt to reduce access

Data show election participation varies greatly

Just 42 percent of registered voters cast their ballots last November. But concentrating on that top-line number would be a

CA debates outsourcing inmates

MAY 21, 2010 By KATY GRIMES In what felt more like a night court at times than a Capitol hearing