On the theory that you can always find Californians who will gladly sign any petition you stick under their noses, I stationed myself outside the Ralphs on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks the other day with a clipboard and a big poster that said:
RECALL THE LEGISLATURE TOO!!!
In less than 10 minutes, I got my first signature for the 2003 California Budget Deficit Prevention Act, which I’d written in about five minutes.
My one-paragraph petition called for the recalling of each and every legislator for having misled us on budgetary and other matters and “really ticking us off, particularly those of us who believe every little problem in the world can and should be corrected by signing yet another petition outside a supermarket or discount outlet.”
The security guard who signed the initiative (without reading it) could name only two candidates in the gubernatorial recall campaign -- actors Gary Coleman and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he eagerly supported the idea of recalling everyone in sight.
I felt a little uncomfortable standing out there, because I hate getting harassed by petitioners. But in a referendum-happy state where vital matters of governance are routinely decided outside Kmarts, with only 12% of the most recent voter turnout required to get a petition on the ballot, I wanted to experience direct democracy from the inside.
Most people had the good sense to dodge or ignore me. One man, who appeared to be a vagrant, made the most astute observation of the day. He told me there is very little discretionary spending in the state budget, and no recall effort could adequately address revenue irregularities caused by overreliance on income and sales taxes.
A wind kicked up and kept blowing my sign down, so I left after a half-hour with just one signature. Later, I set up shop again outside the Warner Plaza Ralphs in Woodland Hills, and within two hours the recalling of the entire Legislature didn’t seem so far-fetched.
“You read my mind,” said a woman who signed the petition without reading it. “Throw all the bums out.”
And replace them with whom?
On the scoreboard of specific, realistic, politically achievable goals, more than 100 candidates for governor have so far produced a bunch of goose eggs. The most prominent candidates, such as Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, look awfully familiar, hitting up special interest groups for money. And Schwarzenegger took less than two weeks to renege on campaign vows.
A dozen or so Ralphs shoppers gave a smile or thumbs-up to recalling the whole Legislature, but didn’t sign on. Two of them insisted they had already signed the petition elsewhere.
A man with a German accent briefly restored my faith in civilization, saying my simple-minded recall campaign overlooked a national economic downturn, and the fact that California still has a relatively decent job market, considering.
But that faith was dashed when a man of about 35 read my sign and said: “I don’t know what that is.”
“The Legislature. What is that?”
I still had my Magic Marker. Was it too late to make a sign calling for a three-strikes law on dumb questions?
I noticed a young lad sitting on a skateboard, watching me, and I was reminded of Rep. Darrell Issa paying signature-gatherers. Without Issa putting up nearly $2 million, there wouldn’t be a recall election, and we wouldn’t have a situation in which a candidate could be elected governor with 20% to 30% of the vote, or less.
I don’t have $2 million, but I hired the skateboarder at a base salary of $5, promising $1 more for every signature he gathered. Risen Brown, 15, was a natural.
“Excuse me, sir, would you like to sign up? It’s absolutely free,” he said again and again. “That’s F-R-E-E.”
It took a while to nab his first signature, but once he got it going, Risen was struck by how easy it was. As his confidence swelled, he began improvising.
“Are your taxes too high?” he asked shoppers, pointing to the big “Recall the Legislature Too” sign.
Risen revised an earlier prediction that he could get 10 or 15 signatures if he stood there all day.
“I could get 25 or 30, easy,” he boasted as I kept pulling dollar bills out of my pocket.
A man who said he was running for Congress in 2006 actually read the petition, signed it anyway and asked if we’d be available for hire to distribute his campaign literature. Another guy, who didn’t seem clear on whether there had been a $38-billion state deficit or surplus, happily signed.
“Man!” exclaimed Risen, who is going into the 10th grade at El Camino Real High School, “These people have no idea what’s going on.”
A woman in a car gave us a big thumbs-up. Risen trotted over with the clipboard and she signed the petition, then handed it to a male companion who also signed.
“Keep it up,” she urged us.
In about 90 minutes, Risen had gathered seven signatures, giving me a total of nine in roughly 2 1/2 hours of work at two locations. It’s conceivable, Risen agreed, that with hundreds of people working Ralphs, Kmarts and Targets across the state, we could get the required 800,000 or so signatures for my Budget Deficit Prevention Act.
Or the Earthquake Prevention Act.
The woman in the car called back, waving a bill.
“Do you take donations?” she asked.
Risen hurried over to the woman and returned with a smile on his face and a $5 bill in his hand.
And they say all the good jobs have left the state.
Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at email@example.com