Showing Initiative: The "Right" Way
By Nikhil Aziz
Statewide ballot initiatives have been launched across the United States
in the 1980s and 90s targeting civil rights, gay rights, immigrants’ rights,
reproductive rights, affirmative action, and bilingual and public education.
A classic example is Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2 that passed in 1992,
which the U.S. Supreme Court finally overturned in 1996 as unconstitutional.
Massachusetts “SuperDOMA” anti-gay ballot initiative (H4840) is only
the latest in a series of such anti-gay measures organized primarily
by the political Right under the guise of “popular will.”
The heated debate over the Massachusetts Legislature’s recent decision
to adjourn instead of voting on H4840 obscures the reality behind the
political Right’s spin that ballot initiatives are a popular expression
of democracy in this country. Slogans such as “Let the people vote!” tend
to camouflage the real initiators behind such “expressions of people’s
wishes.” Researcher Jean Hardisty has argued that ballot initiatives
are a major instrument in the Right’s contraction of democracy. She states
that the New Right fired its first political shot with the 1978 anti-tax
Proposition 13 in California curbing property taxes and crippling that
Entrepreneur Howard Jarvis leading a coalition of business and real
estate interests, rather than any mass movement, was the real force behind
Prop 13. Similar groups played a central role in the case of Massachusetts’ Prop
2.5 in 1980. Usually, a small number of people conceptualize most of
these “popular referendums,” and then canvass it to the broader public
with substantial financial backing, well-orchestrated media campaigns
designed by public relations firms, and paid signature gatherers. For
the latter, money rather than ideology often motivates horsing around
to get the maximum possible signatures on petitions, as was evident in
the case of H4840.
Almost all of these initiatives have another thing in common besides
right-wing sponsorship and major financial support. Their language is
very often deceptive. For instance, Ward Connerly launched the 1995 anti-affirmative
action/civil rights ballot initiative Prop 209 that passed in California
as the “California Civil Rights Initiative.” Christian Right activist
Lon Mabon promoted Oregon’s barely-defeated anti-gay Measure 9 as the “Student
Protection Act.” The Ron Unz-led anti-bilingual education initiative
in Massachusetts is titled “An Act relative to the teaching of English
in Public Schools.”
The Unz initiative is actually very punitive in scope. It allows teachers,
administrators, and elected officials who refuse to comply to be sued
until the child is 18. If found liable they could be forced to pay damages
and legal fees, and be prevented from working in any public school district
for five years. Defendants would have to pay damages from their pocket
because the initiative disallows payments from third parties like municipalities,
insurance companies, or unions.
Wealthy Californian Ron Unz is the main figure associated with the anti-bilingual
education initiative but local “ordinary citizens” are involved too.
Researcher Paul Dunphy writes that many are associated with the Boston-based
Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, a major advocate of privatization
and charter schools. Pioneer board chair, Lovett Peters, gave $10,000
to the Unz initiative, and Pioneer board member Thomas P. McDermott and
Lawrence Coolidge, Pioneer board member Nancy Myers Coolidge’s husband,
each contributed $5,000. Raymond Stata, a contributor to Pioneer board
member William Edgerly’s charter school lobbying group, Partnership for
Better Schools, doled out $50,000.
The groups behind these ballot initiatives often have deceptive and
inclusive-sounding names as well. Connerly’s outfit is called the American
Civil Rights Institute, while Mabon’s is titled the Oregon Citizens Alliance.
The anti-gay forces in Massachusetts banded together as Massachusetts
Citizens for Marriage. As a result many voters, hard-pressed for time
and confronted with a host of initiatives on election day, are confused
about their intent and the agenda of the sponsoring groups.
It is crucial that citizens familiarize themselves with the real forces
and agendas behind ballot initiatives. An easy method of finding information
on ballot initiatives is through the Ballot Initiatives Strategy Center.
The BISC tracks ballot initiatives nationwide and has a resource library
that provides information on the funders and groups that initiate the
measures. Armed with such knowledge, citizens can make conscious and
informed decisions about issues that have an impact on all of us.