In 1993 the first "Three Strikes" initiative made it onto the ballot in Washington state. It was voted into law by 76% of the people who voted. Since then seventeen states have passed similar laws. Not to be outdone, California passed a three strikes law and a three strikes initiative. Supporters of these laws loudly proclaim that they are "the will of the people" and that "the electorate has spoken." But this ignores the fact that in American politics the first election that must be won, before a single vote is cast by the electorate, is the race for money. This is a story of three initiatives in Washington state: One failed and two didn't. The only differences between them were money and how they won that first race by getting the gun lobby to bankroll them.
When many states, especially in the West, were founded, their laws and constitutions included provisions for citizens to put measures on the ballot to be voted on directly by the masses of voters. This was seen as a populist measure by which the people themselves could enact laws that politicians, all too often corrupt and in the thrall of rail and cattle barons, would not pass themselves. In order to qualify for the ballot initiative, gatherers had to draft a law, put it in petition form and then gather a certain number of signatures from enrolled voters. The number of signatures is usually based on a percentage of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. The petitions are then presented to the secretary of state for verification of the signatures whereupon the initiative is certified for inclusion on the ballot.
The idea of voter initiatives is a good one. Washington voters have passed initiatives eliminating a state sales tax on groceries, codifying women's right to an abortion and limiting how politicians raise money for their election campaigns. All of these were laws unlikely to be passed by legislators, especially the last one. But recently so-called citizen initiatives have turned into big money campaigns where special interest groups literally buy their way onto the ballot. In cases where other big money interests are opposed, there are ads and countervailing viewpoints get presented in the media. But with so-called "anti-crime" initiatives, which target poor people and people of color, there is no counterpoint or opposition to these initiatives. It's like shooting ducks in a barrel with a shotgun.
Faced with increased efforts to restrict gun ownership, the gun lobby, most notably the NRA (National Rifle Association), began funding these "anti- crime" initiatives through its Institute for Legislative Action. Many commentators were making a connection between the availability of guns, especially handguns, and an increasing homicide and gun related violent crime rate as people were shot with increasingly more powerful handguns. To distract attention from the correlation between handgun availability and gun related crime and deaths, the NRA responded with "guns don't kill people, people kill people." It began a well orchestrated propaganda campaign that the focus of legislators had to be, not on restricting gun access, but on targeting the "criminals" who misused guns. In many respects this is a thinly veiled racist campaign that aims to keep guns out of non-white hands. [The politics of gun control is the subject of another article.] In most respects this campaign has been an enormous success. The media is flooded with accounts of crime -- bashing the poor, minorities, and prisoners. Gun control has been a non-issue except in the context of how many legislators lost their 1994 bid for re-election because they voted for the so-called assault weapons ban in the 1994 Clinton crime bill.
Three Strikes Yer Out
In 1992, John Carlson, a right wing radio commentator (or the Rush Limbaugh of Seattle), Patricia Lantzy, Jeralita Costa and Ida Ballasiotes formed a group called Citizens for Justice (CFJ). Their first act was filing Initiative 590, which was a three strikes law that had failed to win passage in the legislature. Both Costa and Ballasiotes were crime victim advocates and they have since gone on to careers in the state legislature where they act as professional prisoner bashers. The initiative sought to impose a life sentence on any person convicted for a third time of any one of forty-three listed felonies.
All told the I-590 campaign raised $42,252 and spent $36,938 of it in a failed effort to get the initiative on the ballot. So who bankrolled them? The list is interesting. Pemco insurance company was the first donor who kicked in $10,000; Bruce McCaw, chairman of McCaw Cellular phones donated $3,000 and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms donated $10,000. It is ironic that the Committee to Keep and Bear Arms is donating to anti-crime issues since their chairman, Alan Gottlieb, is himself a convicted felon who under state and federal law would be ineligible to legally own firearms. Other big money donors included the Washington Council of Police Officers for $1,000; William Boeing for $5,000, Richard Baldwin for $2,500; $5,000 from the NRA in Washington DC and $1,000 from the Allison company. In fact, the bulk of the money donated was from rich individuals like Boeing and McCaw, Pemco and the gun lobby. The "individual citizens" who are supposed to be so concerned about crime only donated a paltry $747. In short, citizens aren't willing to put their money where their mouths supposedly are.
When it became readily apparent to the initiative backers that they weren't going to get the signatures they needed to qualify for the ballot, they paid $5,000 to Northwest Alliance to pay signature gatherers for signatures. The $5,900 donation from the Washington D.C. NRA came on June 1, about a month before the initiative backers had to present 181,000 signatures to the secretary of state in order to qualify for the state ballot. They used the money to send out a mass mailing of petitions, but they still failed.
The Return of Three Strikes
After the Washington state legislature failed to pass a three strikes law in its 1993 session and in the wake of the failure of I-590 the year before, its backers decided to try again. This time bankrolled by the gun lobby's blood money, they proved that all its takes to get on the ballot is enough money. By now Ballasiotes had been elected to the state legislature and she did not appear as one of the initiative's backers. David LaCourse, a purported businessman and "unpaid" volunteer for CFJ, emerged as a front man for the group. Carlson, who also had a column in the Seattle Times at that time, was actively and heavily promoting I-593 on his radio show and in the Times.
All told I-593 would raise and spend $210,616.34, with $14.67 left over once the campaign finished. In addition to donations, the campaign would owe LaCourse, Carlson and Lantzy, the campaign treasurer, some $40,616.34 for money they "loaned" the campaign. These "loans" were paid back. The total amount of money donated by the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action was a whopping $91,146. The other big money donors were $10,000 from Pemco Insurance Company, $8,000 from Services Group of America; $4,090 from William Boeing; $2,500 from Victoria Wise; $3,000 from the Citizen's Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. What is interesting is that LaCourse "loaned" the campaign almost $20,900. Carlson "loaned" it almost $2,000. I find it interesting that LaCourse has tens of thousands of dollars in discretionary income lying around that he can pump into this type of campaign, yet didn't do so in I-590.
So where are the concerned citizens in all this? According to the campaign's records, individual citizens donated only a small portion of the money raised by the campaign. One would think that if people felt that strongly about this, or any other issue, they would not hesitate to donate their money to it. Instead, the one that felt most strongly about this was the gun lobby, which kicked in almost half of the total raised.
Sherry Bockwinkel is the godmother of the paid ballot initiative. If you have the money and want to get something on the ballot in Washington state, you come to her. She has successfully represented timber and developer interests in getting a "property rights" initiative on the ballot; an initiative financed by aluminum and agricultural industry which sought to ban gill net fishing under the guise of protecting salmon (the fish population is being destroyed by dams that support, you got it, the aluminum and agriculture industry in Washington); and an initiative that would allow unregulated casino gambling on Indian reservations. Bockwinkel summed it up in an July 10, 1995, Seattle Times interview when she said: "One of the first things I ask when people come to me with an initiative is whether they can raise $250,000. The harsh reality is that's what it costs to run a statewide campaign. You have to pay to play." Bockwinkel has made a very lucrative living off these initiatives. She heads two initiative business, Camera Ready and LIMIT, which do everything from print the petitions to pay people to get the signatures needed to put them on the ballot.
So if the citizenry doesn't feel strong enough about crime issues to donate their money to it, then surely they believe in the cause enough to get the required 181,000 signatures from their fellow concerned citizens, right? Guess again. The single biggest expenditure for the campaign was to pay people to get signatures. Signature gatherers get paid between 50 cents to a dollar for each signature they get. The closer they are to the July 1 filing deadline, the more they get paid. I-593 campaign records show signature gatherers getting paid $1,438.50; 13 different Bellevue (a plush Seattle suburb) signature gatherers got $1,394.75; 82 signature gatherers got paid nearly $30,000; 30 signature gatherers got $10,800; James Lynch got paid $630 and Sherry Bockwinkel got paid some $16,000 for gathering signatures and another $30,000 for "artwork." (As someone who closely followed the I-593 campaign at the time I must confess not recalling any "artwork" associated with the campaign.) LaCourse got paid $5,000 for undisclosed services. They spent $1,323 on their victory celebration party. The only other major expense they list on their disclosure forms are $30,000 to Ackerman/McQueen Advertising.
The spending paid off. I-593 made it onto the ballot this time and was passed into law by 76% of the people who voted. Its impact has been felt across the country as other states and the US congress hurried to pass their own versions of "Three Strikes You're Out" laws. Beyond the immediate impact of these laws was that the entire crime and punishment debate was sharply shifted to the right. Any mention of gun control was simply not on the agenda. Instead the only topic was politicians and so called "victims' rights" groups trying to outdo each other in how draconian they could be in passing new criminal laws and tormenting prisoners.
In a fundraising letter that CFJ sent to supporters, they said that 3 strikes was only the first step. Their program envisioned a four stage program to essentially change the face of the criminal justice system in Washington. The next step was an initiative to increase the penalties for gun related crimes (remember, criminals misuse guns -- gun availability has nothing to do with it), then one to revamp the juvenile criminal justice system, and lastly, one to make "life tough for prisoners."
Hard Time for Armed Crime
Initiative 593 was an initiative to the people where enough signatures qualified it for the ballot to be voted on directly by the voters. That type of initiative gives organizers from January 1 to July 1 to gather the necessary signatures. Initiatives to the legislature by contrast require the same number of signatures but give organizers until December 31 to gather the necessary signatures. The initiative is then presented to the state legislature which must either pass the initiative as written or put it on the next ballot. The legislature can also write its own version of the law and let voters choose between the two.
In 1994 CFJ launched its I-159 campaign as an initiative to the legislature. Dubbed "Hard Time for Armed Crime" the initiative would substantially increase the penalty for crimes committed with firearms, created new crimes and also expanded the state's death penalty to include car jacking, drive-by shootings and any deaths caused by someone trying to avoid a three strikes sentence. After all, if someone is facing a life without parole sentence for a petty crime, they have little to lose by "holding court in the street" as they say. The initiative was rather transparently racist as it focused on the types of gun crime already punished by state law but largely committed by minority youth.
I-159 would raise a total of $117,062. The money came from the usual suspects: The Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms donated $5,000; the NRA donated $10,000; Pemco gave $10,000; Services Group of America $4,000; Kathryn Johnston of Phoenix Partners, a Seattle brokerage house, $6,700. LaCourse would "loan" this campaign $41,650. Where LaCourse got the money to loan the campaign is not known. Under state law all people making donations to initiative campaigns must be disclosed to the state's Public Disclosure Commission. One way to get around this requirement would be to funnel the money through a front man who could then "loan" it to the campaign. Or promise to reimburse the person for any loans made during the campaign.
As of December 31, 1994 the campaign had spent $112,815.11. The bulk of this amount went to Washington Initiatives Now (WIN) for signature gathering. All told WIN got almost $50,000. An outfit named APC Inc., got $15,300 for "consulting" and a woman named Sonja McDonald also got $5,312.45 for "consulting." Given the fact that the disclosure forms list the fees paid to WIN to be for "consulting" it is safe to assume that "consulting" means signature gathering. So all told some $70,000 of the $112,000 spent went to buy signatures. The rest of the money was spent on printing, postage and media costs.
Not surprisingly, the initiative got enough signatures and was sent to the legislature where it was voted into law with an overwhelming majority. A telling incident came when the Seattle Public Defender office brought a black man to testify before the legislature as someone who would be affected by this law. While the man awaited his turn to testify, one of the legislators, a Tacoma cop, summoned police to detain the man because he looked "suspicious." Apparently minorities don't come to testify about legislation often enough.
In both cases where initiatives passed, before the first ballot was cast the money race had already been run and won by CFJ. The role of the gun lobby in bankrolling these initiatives went largely unreported at the time. Most importantly, no one was asking "why is the NRA doing this?" After all, the NRA hadn't seen crime as a big priority in the past. But beginning around 1992-93 NRA ads began to boast of the role the group had played in passing this type of legislation in several states. As the NRA's role in stopping gun control legislation was being attributed to the rise of gun related crimes, the NRA struck back by actively promoting high profile campaigns like Initiative 593. With the passing of I-593, the NRA could say "we're in the forefront of the fight against crime" and "we're tough on people who misuse firearms." All too often, though, the political payoff for the NRA has been mixed. In the federal 1994 crime bill the "assault weapons" ban was passed by congress along with a federal three strikes law and many other repressive laws. Ironically, the only thing that came close to derailing the "crime bill" was the NRA's opposition to the included assault weapons ban. In most states the trend towards more draconian criminal laws is also being accompanied by increased restrictions on citizen's access to firearms, despite the NRA's opposition to the latter.
Buying the Ballot
Why is it necessary to pay signature gatherers to get the signatures necessary to get a measure on the ballot? One initiative organizer was interviewed and said the difference was that a volunteer would only stand in the rain getting signatures for an hour while a paid signature gatherer would stand in the rain for eight hours or more getting signatures. A more mundane reality, especially when it comes to "crime" issues, is that most people don't feel strongly enough about the issue to do anything about it, either by donating their money or by getting signatures. So what started out as a populist idea has become a means by which big money corporate interests can put laws on the ballot and get them voted on.
On an even playing field this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The recent "property rights" initiative, which was an initiative to the legislature, was overwhelmingly passed by the state legislature. In a few weeks people opposed to it, including environmental groups, gathered enough signatures (yes, by paying for them) to get the measure on the ballot where voters rejected it. Opponents to other initiatives have run ads and media campaigns often resulting in the measure being defeated when voted on. The difference is that prisoners and the poor people likely to be criminal defendants have no lobby, no money and consequently no voice. So when voters got to vote on these initiatives the only information they had were the shrill cries from Carlson and the rest of the corporate media. Since the three strikes law was passed in 1993 some 77% of the defendants convicted under it in King County (Seattle) are black, despite the fact that blacks make up only some 5% of the county population and about the same number of whites are eligible for a three strikes sentence as blacks.
The best way to defeat initiatives is by keeping them off the ballot in the first place. The gay community has done a remarkable job through its organization of "Bigot Busters" who will appear and present information to people about to sign petitions that would place homophobic and discriminatory initiatives on the ballot. The gay community realizes that rights aren't something that should be put up for a vote.
A more practical way to reserve the populist spirit of the initiative process would be to make paying signature gatherers illegal. In 1993 the Washington state legislature passed House Bill 1645, RCW 2979.490 which made it a misdemeanor to pay signature gatherers per signature, rather than on an hourly basis. The legislature claimed that paying people by the signature encouraged fraud. Bockwinkel filed suit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the statute and judge Barbara Rothstein held the law was unconstitutional and struck it down. See: Limit v. Maleng, 874 F. Supp. 1138 (WD WA 1994).
What is ironic is that Bockwinkel was represented by James Lobsenz, a prominent Seattle defense attorney who was recently presented with the "Abolitionist of the Year" award by the Washington Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Lobsenz is best known for his unsuccessful representation of Charles Campbell, a notorious triple murderer executed in Walla Walla in 1994. Because of Lobsenz's work (he also represents Bockwinkel in other initiative related legal matters) challenging this statute, the way was paved to get I-159 to the legislature which significantly expanded the death penalty in Washington state. Granted, lawyers are in the business of making money, and helping pass draconian criminal laws is one sure way to drum up business if you're a criminal defense lawyer, but an abolitionist? This would be like Johnny Cochran representing Mark Fuhrman. So paid signature gathering continues unabated. Indeed, times have been good for signature gatherers.
So why weren't there any more "anti-crime" initiatives from the CFJ in 1995? After all, they promised at least two more in their plan to revamp the state's criminal justice system. The answer may well lie in the fact that the NRA has fallen on tough times financially. The November 2, 1995, issue of Rolling Stone reported that the NRA had a cumulative operating deficit of more than $50 million. Most of the deficit is attributed to overspending by the Institute for Legislative Action which has funded initiatives like I-593 and I-159, and declining membership revenues. The NRA's credit rating is the lowest possible given by Wall Street firms. In addition the NRA is being audited by the IRS. With no gun money the financial wind has been taken out of the CFJ's sails.
If the CFJ had, or does, carry through on its promised four initiatives it will essentially revamp the entire criminal justice system in Washington state, which will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars as the costs associated with these policies come due, for less than a million dollars. So the gun lobby in Washington D.C. gets to dictate policy in Washington several thousand miles away. Washington may as well hang up a sign "criminal justice system for sale." Fortunately, it looks like the one major bidder is broke.
David LaCourse "loaned" the I-159 campaign more than $41,000, which would imply he is a man of means. However, on May 25, 1995, Greater Seattle Printing sued LaCourse and his wife, as the officers of CFJ, for $8,381.38 that CFJ and LaCourse owed and had not paid for printing done in the I-159 campaign. LaCourse sent out copies of the lawsuit as a fundraiser. Apparently the coffers of the gun lobby are running low. So if LaCourse has tens of thousands of dollars laying around to "loan" campaigns, why can't he pay his debts? What happened to the $117,000 the campaign took in?
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