The last few days I’ve been moaning about the defeat of three California ballot initiatives I worked on.
All three would have been good for the people of California but bad for lawyers.
Even in California “the people” outnumber the lawyers by a handy margin, yet the lawyers won. How come?*
Partly, as described yesterday, they just lied. Lie loud enough, long enough, and — especially on a subject that requires some analysis to fully understand — you can persuade the electorate of anything. (Unless, as sometimes happens, the opposition has enough money to answer all your charges with an even larger TV ad campaign, which we did not.)
But what really made the lawyers’ lies credible were the list of endorsers joining them in opposing Props 200, 201 and 202. “Join Ralph Nader and vote no” ran the commercials. And along with Nader were just about every liberal and labor group you can think of.
If these propositions were really good for the people, how could that be? Isn’t it more likely that I’m the one lying to you, not the lawyers?
Certainly millions of people of good will could conclude that — and did. Had these same groups all been fighting for the propositions, I think they would have won handily.
Now, I wasn’t “there,” but here’s what I think happened.
It begins with Ralph Nader and his man-in-California Harvey Rosenfield, a self-described consumer advocate. Ralph has always opposed any form of no-fault auto insurance, even for the 30 years Consumers Union, publishers of =Consumer Reports/= , strongly favored it. He even opposed the form of no-fault they have in Michigan, the state Consumer Reports has credited as having the best auto insurance system in the nation (and the one that comes closest to what Prop 200 would have provided).
Nader denies getting any appreciable support from the trial lawyers, but he has in fact worked hand-in-glove with the trial lawyers for decades (often to good and beneficial result). He denies it, but his various efforts have gotten tremendous financial support from trial lawyers. So our three lawyer-limiting initiatives are proposed and Nader sees his power base threatened. Can they use his name against them? Sure.
Not because he’s corrupt, but because he really believes that any encroachment on a citizens right to sue, no matter how slight, is not worth making, no matter what the benefit. And because when you’ve worked so closely all your productive life with a group of people who’ve loyally supported you, and on whose loyal support you count for the future, you just naturally tend to see things their way.
(Nader told the New York Times recently he’s gotten “less than 1 percent” of his support from lawyers. But here’s what some nationally known trial lawyers told Forbes a few years ago: “We are what supports Ralph Nader. We contribute to him, and he fundraises through us.” — Fred Levin. “I can get on the phone and raise $100,000 for Nader in one day.” — Herb Hafif. “We suport him overtly, covertly, every way possible. We have supported him for decades. I would think we give him a huge percentage of what he raises.” — Pat Maloney.)
So now Ralph goes to his closest associates — people like Joan Claybrook, who runs the Nader-founded Public Citizen and who is on the board of Consumers Union, and Harvey Rosenfield, his disciple in California — and he says (as I imagine it), “Listen, there are some really bad corporate dudes out to screw the rights of the little guy in California –can you help me?” And they fall all over themselves wanting to help. Who wouldn’t?
Never mind that with regard to by far the most important of the three initiatives, the overwhelming majority of “little guys” would benefit dramatically, with hundreds of dollars more in their pockets each year, and with far greater assurance that, if badly hurt in a car crash, their financial loss would be covered.
So Rosenfield becomes a man with a mission. Though he periodically claims to the press that “less than 10%” of his support comes from trial lawyers, his own records, misfiled in Sacramento (they were never meant to be made public), show that essentially 100% of his support comes from trial lawyers. He just flat-out lied.
But other consumer groups didn’t know this when Rosenfield approached them — starting, presumably, with the ones he and Nader had worked most closely with in the past — and said (again, as I imagine it), “Listen, there are some really bad corporate dudes out to screw the rights of the little guy in California — can I add your name to Ralph Nader’s and mine in opposing them?”
So the inner circle said yes — heck, there was a time I would have said yes — without ever investigating or hearing the other side of the story.
So now Harvey had maybe a dozen names to go along with his own and Nader’s, and he could approach the slightly-less-inner-circle. “Would you join all of us in signing a statement?” And the next circle, seeing the fine names of their traditional allies, and hearing the terrible ways auto insurance rates would rise and injured people would fare worse (lies, but convincingly told) — they signed on, too. Again, without ever having called us to hear our side.
By June 29 of last year, without our even knowing it, they had assembled 75 names — everyone from Consumers Union to the NAACP and some AIDS groups — to sign a statement many of them had probably not even read, let alone investigated for accuracy. It contained by our count 41 deceptive, unfair, misleading or outright untrue statements. And of course, we documented all this and sent it to as many of the 75 as we could locate.
But by then the battle had been largely lost. Do you know how hard it is to get someone to change a public position? (“Well, we didn’t hear both sides of the story, we didn’t do our homework, so now we’re switching sides.”) Do you know how hard it is to get someone to disassociate himself, let alone oppose, a group of 75 traditional allies?
So, yes, with great effort we did get a few people to disassociate themselves from the statement. And yes, we did get some brave Democrats to sign on with us — Roberta Achtenberg and John Tunney and former Massachusetts congressman Chet Atkins; Amfar co-chair Tom Stoddard and Medical Education for South African Blacks co-founders Joy and Herb Kaiser and tobacco-industry-nemesis Joe Cherner; Stanford University President Emeritus Richard Lyman, Democratic Leadership Council President Al From and liberal philanthropist Peter Norton (yes, that Peter Norton of Norton Utilities). And we did have one important grassroots consumer ally, Voter Revolt, whose canvassers knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors and garnered more than 15,000 small donations.
But basically, from Day One, long before the actual campaign began, the entire liberal establishment — to which I often contribute — had circled the wagons against three ballot propositions that would have greatly benefited the people of California.
The lawyers laughed all the way to the bank.
*(That these things are possible in a democracy is perhaps proven by the ease with which Ronald Reagan was able to gain enthusiastic popular support for slashing the taxes of the relatively few richest Americans, while raising taxes on the working class, through a hike in the Social Security tax. Good marketing.)
Tomorrow: The GM MasterCard Sort-Of 5% Rebate
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