Democracy in California

My German friends won’t believe me when I tell them that democracy is alive and well in California. In fact, most people would not believe me. We have a popular-vote losing president in the White House, we have a campaign-financing system that undermines democracy and we have voter participation at 55% nationwide. Moreover, we have millions of citizens struggling to pay for their healthcare and to make ends meet. Without economic security we can hardly call our system democratic.

But, that is not the whole picture. I have been living on the California Central Coast, in the charming, mid-size college town San Luis Obispo (SLO), for the past eight months and I have seen the other side of the coin. The political engagement of a large sector of the population is palpable. People are getting involved in the local community in a myriad of ways far beyond the simple check in a ballot box every two years. Some of this may be a manifestation of the ‘Blue Wave’, a revolt of Democrats and Progressives resulting from the shock of Trump’s election. But not all of it. I personally have been involved in three examples of this revitalized democracy: the heated controversy about bike lanes, the Progressive takeover of the local Democratic Party, and a citizen’s ballot initiative to ban new oil wells in the county.Offshore_Oil_Rally005

I moved to the area from Germany and during my first week in the town, I was confronted with concerned citizens all over. It has not been a collective disgust with the new president, rather a very local thing.

We moved into a rental in the upscale neighborhood of Ferrini Heights where the smaller homes were going for $700,000 and the big ones for upwards of 3 million. At a party with my landlord’s friends, talk was all about new housing development, traffic and the troubles with the influx of new university students. While their talk did sound typical complaining, they were serious and they are organized. They are all members of a local resident’s organization, whose main purpose is to try to maintain ‘good ole SLO’ as it used to be. They are radically critical of the new, progressive city council in general and their plans to ween the city of carbon.

These and other concerned citizens rallied together to prevent the city from going through with new bicycle infrastructure. The controversy culminated at a city council meeting in February where the council planned to vote on planned bike lanes. The council chambers were packed and they had to open an overflow room with a live broadcast. For three hours citizens from both sides of the issue stood and stated their positions. Parents with children, the elderly and young professionals were present. My impression was that the statements were about 60% for bike lanes, 40% against. The opponents, though, were able to convince the council that they had to postpone their plans. Their main concern was the removal of parking spaces in front of their homes and they appeared ready to defend this space tooth and nail. While I found the opponents arguments weak and self-serving, the intensity of political engagement was heartening.

The second example could be seen as a backlash of the Trump election, or more favorably, a continuation of the Bernie Revolution. The SLO Progressives formed at the beginning of 2017 and by summer had become the largest democratic group in the county, dwarfing traditional, more conservative forces in local Democratic Party politics. Their meetings filled the local Guild Hall and were professionally organized. They steadfastly asked people to sign up as members, they had a clear agenda, facilitation and practiced speakers. They had quickly formed working groups oriented towards health care, women in politics and get out the vote campaigns. The focus of the group is on getting progressives elected, and in that way influencing local, regional and state politics. They call on politicians to pledge to not take any campaign contributions from the oil industry.

The third example is a local ballot initiative to ban fracking and new oil wells in the county. It is an example of direct democracy where citizens can directly vote on specific changes to laws and regulations and circumvent the cumbersome and often ineffective legislative process.

SLO County has traditionally not been the target of oil extraction. Nearby Kern County was much more suited for oil drilling. While the soil and rock under the county is full of oil, it is of poor quality and difficult to access. The county has, however, long been a key infrastructure point for oil from nearby counties and has suffered from numerous oil-related disasters. In 1988 whistleblowers uncovered the largest onshore oil spill in California history. The Union Oil Guadalupe oilfield had been leaking oil for decades. In 1994 it was discovered that oil spills had leaked over 400 gallons of petroleum in and around the local town of Avila Beach. The clean up involved tearing down a large part of downtown, removing massive amounts of contaminated soil, and rebuilding the city.

The ballot initiative calls to amend the County General Plan and sections of county code to prohibit well stimulation treatments and any new oil extraction. If we manage to collect around 9000 signatures before the end of April, the initiative will be placed on the November ballot for voter approval. Offshore drilling beyond three miles of the coast would not be affected, although the county would have to refuse building any infrastructure needed for offshore wells.

Beginning in January 2017, a small group of local citizens had been successful in gaining active support from county residents, draft the extensive and legally-sensitive text of the initiative, and launch a signature-signing campaign across the county. I heard about the initiative at a meeting of SLO Progressives in late summer of 2017 and was soon involved in updating and administering their website and user database and general planning for the campaign. The group created the Coalition to Protect SLO County, which consists of a core team of about 10 individuals who have a long history of fighting big oil. The Coalition was able to acquire the support of the Center for Biological Diversity, a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental protection. Part of their mission is to actively support local groups working to advance ballot initiatives.

Creating the ballot initiative from the beginning involved various stages: build a local movement and convene a group of dedicated volunteers, plan and implement the legal steps needed to gain county approval of the initiative, draft the actual text with the assistance of an attorney, plan and implement a campaign to collect signatures, plan and implement a voter campaign to get the initiative approved at the ballot in November. Unfortunately, the group also has to plan how to deal with a possible legal suit by big oil to stop the initiative before election day or to overturn it after it is passed.

Monterey County, just to the north of SLO, passed a similar initiative in 2016, called Measure Z. The oil industry invested $5.6 million dollars to fight Measure Z. Although the initiative passed, big oil was successful in the courts where they filed six lawsuits to challenge the measure. In December of 2017 Monterey County Superior Court decided to uphold the anti-fracking part of the measure but to overturn the ban on new oil wells. Local citizens have appealed and are presently awaiting a decision by the higher court.

Presently, late March 2018, the Coalition to Protect SLO County is running a huge signature-gathering campaign. In cities and towns across the county dozens of volunteers are standing in front of supermarkets, walking through farmer’s markets and approaching friends and family to ask if they want to sign the petition. So-called ‘city captains’ train  ‘circulators’ on the do’s and don’ts of collecting signatures, pass out and collect the petition packages with room for 50 signatures. Another team of volunteers is validating signatures to track progress. There are people involved in fundraising, media outreach and research.

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