Clipboard clash

Pub date February 9, 2010
SectionGreen City

When John Grubb switched jobs a few months ago to work for Repair California, a nonprofit that aims to remedy Sacramento’s political dysfunction by revising the state Constitution, he never imagined how ruthless the political world could be for a public figure advocating for reform.

“I got a death threat myself this morning,” Grubb confided in a recent telephone conversation with the Guardian. He declined to say from whom, and seemed to be wondering if he should have kept quiet about it. “Now we have our security guards at the building watching for this person,” he added, trying to laugh it off as if unfazed.

One day earlier, Grubb had distributed a press release charging that Repair California was being subjected to intimidation, blacklisting, and other “dirty tricks” and strong-arm tactics from representatives of the state’s major signature-gathering firms. These politically powerful companies are trying to quash Repair California’s campaign for a California constitutional convention, he charged.

Ironically, it seems an initiative campaign that could reform how initiative campaigns are conducted in California has provoked the ire of the initiative campaign industry.

Repair California is circulating petitions to get a pair of initiatives on the November ballot asking voters if a constitutional convention should be called to reform state government. Despite having a healthy $3.6 million in funding, it has encountered major stumbling blocks toward collecting the 1.1 million signatures needed to qualify.

Paid signature gatherers were shouted down in the streets, threatened with the prospect of never working in the industry again, and spied on by informants from signature-gathering firms that then placed them on blacklists, according to Grubb. The nonprofit also alleges that representatives from these firms were seen throwing stacks of signed constitutional convention petitions into the trash.

There are six major signature-gathering firms in California that contract with political campaigns to circulate petitions for ballot initiatives. Through a network of regional coordinators, they hire independent contractors who are paid by the signature to stand on the street with clipboards soliciting voters’ support.

The firms take in millions of dollars from each campaign, but for circulators who carry half a dozen petitions at once, the work comes in temporary bursts and moves from state to state. Paid signature gatherers who spoke with the Guardian said that being blacklisted could spell disaster — a hefty pay cut or being frozen out of a job completely.

Attorney Steven Miller, who works with the firm Hanson Bridgett and is representing Repair California, sent a cease and desist letter to at least three of the six major firms Feb. 2, a first step toward possible litigation. Miller told the Guardian that the firms’ activities constitute an illegal boycott and a violation of antitrust laws. Their tactics also interfere with rights guaranteed in the California Constitution to circulate petitions and place initiatives on the ballot. “Nothing surprises me anymore, but this really surprised me,” he said.

While Miller didn’t say exactly which firms he sent letters to, the three names that came up in various off-record conversations on this matter were Kimball Petition Management, run by Fred Kimball; National Petition Management, run by Lee Albright; and Arno Political Consultants, run by Michael Arno.

Grubb formerly served as a spokesperson for the Bay Area Council, a business group based in San Francisco and the primary force behind Repair California. The council’s push for a Sacramento shakeup generated a buzz last November when Clint Reilly, a renowned San Francisco political consultant who sits on the board of the Council, emerged from retirement to helm the campaign.

Repair California envisions the convention as a rare opportunity for Californians to reshape certain aspects of state government. After an extensive meeting, convention delegates would ask voters to approve suggested tweaks to California’s constitution. Proponents say issues begging for reform include the Legislature’s two-thirds majority vote requirement to pass a budget, government efficiency, the election process, and the initiative process itself.

“In California today … you basically need to get 1 million signatures in 150 days or less” to get an initiative on the ballot, Grubb said. “And the only way to do that is with several million dollars in your checking account, which is something most average citizens don’t have. That means that the initiative process has in effect been captured by special interest groups — moneyed interests.”

Therein lies the rub. It would be virtually impossible for Repair California to get a call for a constitutional convention on the November 2010 ballot without paying people to collect signatures — but many paid signature gatherers are afraid of putting themselves out of business by circulating the petition. Some are worried about getting blacklisted by major firms, while others are concerned that the entire industry could be overhauled as a result of a constitutional convention.

Given the serious allegations and potential lawsuit surrounding this matter, only Grubb and Miller were willing to be quoted for this story. Yet sources on both sides of the issue did speak with the Guardian on condition of anonymity.

Grubb said that Repair California never sought contracts from the big signature-gathering firms, preferring instead to amass its own force of clipboard-wielding petitioners. “We never had the intention of going to them,” he said.

But an industry insider told the Guardian that the nonprofit did approach two of the major companies to sign a contract, but got turned down due to a consensus that the petition would lead to an overhaul of the industry. This person also suggested that the pending lawsuit was way off the mark, and speculated that Repair California was concocting it to try and win money, media attention, and public support.

Another person familiar with the industry put it this way: “None of the petition people wanted to carry it because it would slit their own throats. They all agreed not to do it — it could kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

So far, the campaign for a constitutional convention has gathered only about 100,000 of the 1.1 million signatures needed by the end of April to qualify for the November ballot. It will have to spend an estimated $1 million more than anticipated, Grubb said, because many of the paid petition circulators are being brought in from outside California’s initiative-industry network.

Despite the extra cost, Grubb says he feels confident the campaign will be a success. “Popularity hasn’t been a problem,” he said, “except for with the signature gathering firms.”