Politics & Government

April 5, 2014

At Walmarts in the Valley: Groceries, goods and grassroots democracy

Shoppers at Clovis' Walmart Supercenter on Herndon Avenue last week had an almost endless array of choices, from groceries to household items to toiletries to clothing. And grassroots democracy could have been on their shopping list if they were interested.

That opportunity awaited at the table set up by Rick and Donna Baker outside the store's entrance. Shoppers could sign petitions on whether to split California into six states; give law-abiding citizens the right to own, carry and fire a gun; or reduce some drug and theft felonies to misdemeanors. They could even sign a petition preventing legislators from diverting children's health-care money to the general fund.

The Bakers are among an army of signature gatherers who are trying to get various initiatives qualified for the November ballot. In initiative-crazy California, you see it in front of retail outlets across the state, as signature gatherers go to where the people congregate to fill their petitions.

The Bakers, with all four petitions at their table, offered a low-key pitch to shoppers, as they urged them to stop and sign.

"I'll go 10 minutes with nobody and then I'll go 10 minutes or whatever it is with a crowd full of people," Rick Baker said.

This is retail politics at a retail store. High-traffic businesses like Walmart are popular with the signature gatherers standing at entrances and exits.

"Are you a registered voter in Fresno County?" a man toting a clipboard asked shoppers leaving a Walmart in southeast Fresno last week.

If a person stopped, he would make his pitch, seeking a signature. The goal is to collect enough signatures statewide to qualify the initiatives for the November ballot.

At another entrance to the Clovis Walmart, Erin Roo and Gary Roe had set up a table, and tried to entice shoppers to sign by promoting gun rights or framing the six-states initiative as a way to keep more Valley water in the Valley.

"We're like the troops," Roo said of being a signature gatherer. "The front lines."

One person who stopped to sign was Fresno resident Bruce Baker. Rick Baker recognized him as a fellow church member, though they aren't related.

Bruce Baker said he signs such petitions regularly.

"I wouldn't be putting my name on it if I didn't believe in it," he said as he signed all four petitions Rick Baker put in front of him.

Bruce Baker said the initiative process was needed to keep the state Legislature in line.

"That's the problem," he said. "We don't have any power anymore."

But the odds are long for most proposed ballot initiatives, experts say. There currently are 50 proposed initiatives that have been cleared by the Secretary of State's Office to collect signatures in California.

For most, that means getting 504,760 signatures, which is equal to 5% of the votes cast for governor in the 2010 election, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, an organization that provides research to legislators and policymakers.

Constitutional amendments such as splitting California into six states, however, require more -- 807,615 signatures. That's 8% of the votes cast for governor in the 2010 election, the NCSL says.

There are proposals to increase the cigarette tax by $1 per pack to fund brain and stem-cell research, prohibit any future sale of high-speed rail bonds, re-establish county redevelopment agencies and hike the state's minimum wage. A half dozen proposed initiatives cover some form of marijuana legalization.

But there are only a small handful that political experts say have a realistic chance of making the November ballot.

Wendy Underhill, a program manager with the National Conference of State Legislators who has expertise in the initiative process, said qualifying an initiative for the ballot isn't easy.

"Someone has an idea, and to get that idea to the ballot is quite an achievement," she said. "There are so many steps along the way."

Long before a petition gatherer hits the streets, the proposed initiative has to clear several bureaucratic hurdles that include having its language approved. Even after the signatures are submitted, they can be challenged. It's why initiative backers always aim for well above the required number of signatures.

Most never make it to the ballot, but 48% of those that did have been approved by California voters since 2000, Underhill said.

"The people who propose ballot measures have to be optimists," she said.

The key to success looks to be having high-profile backers who are paying the petition gatherers to collect signatures.

The proposal to break California into six states, for instance, looks to be the big payer.

Rick Baker said they are paying $2 per signature, but Roe said signature gatherers can make $3 per signature for each one above 300.

Initiatives that would reduce drug and theft charges from felonies to misdemeanors and would stop legislators from diverting the hospital fee money are paying $1 each, Baker, Roe and others said.

The California Hospital Association is supporting the latter proposal.

Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West is also backing two initiatives, and has hired an Oregon firm that pays its workers by the hour to collect the signatures.

One proposal would ban hospitals from charging more than 25% above the actual cost of care. The other would cap not-for-profit hospital executives from making more than the president -- currently $450,000.

The future of the other initiatives is murky at best.

Roo, Roe and the Bakers also are carrying the gun-rights petition, but they're not getting paid for any of the signatures.

Baker said he is a small business owner, so the income generated by the signatures isn't important. Roo and Roe, however, need the money. Roo is an artist and Roe an aspiring writer. The income from getting signatures, they said, helps pay the rent and allows them to pursue their passion.

Some people have been known to make a full-time living off the practice.

Still, Baker and Roo and Roe went as far as putting up signs at their respective desks outside the Clovis Walmart that tout the gun-rights initiative.

"Don't allow abolishment of our 2nd Amendment gun rights," Baker's sign read.

But Roe said he is skeptical the proposed initiative can get the needed 807,615 signatures. He said the issue plays well in the Valley, but he said it is a harder sell in coastal regions.

The deadline to get those signatures -- which must come from registered California voters -- is May 27.

Baker is even skeptical about the six-states initiative, which has garnered lots of media attention.

"Do I think it's going to pass?" he asked rhetorically. "No. But is it going to get attention to our (water shortage) plight? Yeah. Hopefully."

What Valley residents do ask about supporting is the proposed high-speed rail initiative, but is appears nobody in Fresno County is carrying those petitions.

Not that there aren't liberals who will stop and chat. Or maybe even argue. It's all all right with the Bakers.

"We really like our conservative people who come up and share their hearts," Donna Baker said. "We're OK with the others because, hey, we of all people love the fact that we are a country where there's freedom of speech. You can believe what you want."


Key dates

May 5: First day to vote by mail (also the day most sample ballots are mailed)

May 19: Last day to register to vote

May 27: Last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot by mail

June 3: Primary Election Day

Nov. 4: General Election Day


Fresno County: 2221 Kern St., Fresno;

details: fblinks.com/fcvote or (559) 600-VOTE (8683)

Tulare County: 5951 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia; details: fblinks.com/tcvote or (559) 624-7300

Kings County: 1400 W. Lacey Blvd., Hanford; details: fblinks.com/kcvote or (559) 582-3211, ext. 4401

Madera County: 200 W. Fourth St., Madera;

details: fblinks.com/madvote or (559) 675-7720

Merced County: 2222 M St., Merced;

details: fblinks.com/mervote or (209) 385-7541

Mariposa County: 4982 10th St., Mariposa;

details: fblinks.com/marvote or (209) 966-2007  

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