This article is adapted from Inside Obama’s Brain by Sasha Abramsky, by arrangement with Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright ©Sasha Abramsky, 2009.

Faced with a collapsing social infrastructure and a government that is failing to meet the basic needs of its residents, a growing number of Californians are organizing to develop solutions. The campaigns are wide-ranging, but they all share a sense that things can’t get much worse and a belief that major changes are within reach.

Constitutional Convention.

John Grubb, campaign director for a coalition called Repair California, says support for a constitutional convention is running at more than 70 percent. “We think this is the only chance for reform out there, because people have so little trust now in the other mechanisms,” Grubb says. Its goals are backed by progressive groups like Common Cause, the New America Foundation and the Courage Campaign; civil rights organizations like the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project have also indicated their interest. In late October, Repair California filed language for two ballots on the issue with the state’s attorney general. If the ballots are certified and then passed by voters, they would mandate that a convention be convened by May 2011 and that its recommendations be voted on by the 2012 general election.

Budget and Tax Reform.

Most progressive analysts, including groups such as the California Budget Project, believe that without reforming the way California manages its finances the state will only stumble from one crisis to the next. Polls show that voters are reluctant to raise taxes or rein in the initiative process in isolation (some argue that such reforms will only be approved in the context of a broad rewriting of the constitution). But with the public up in arms about cuts to an already slashed-to-the-bone school system, there is some support for a so-called “split roll” property tax, whereby commercial property taxes are permitted to float upward to reflect the market value of those properties. “We are not the nation’s future if we continue to dismantle what was the best public school and best public university system in the country,” argues CBP executive director Jean Ross.

Term Limits.

Even though a majority opposes reforming the state’s strict term-limits law, serious observers think that public opinion is actually somewhat up for grabs on this issue. In LA, the Chamber of Commerce has gotten so concerned by the failures of state leaders to balance the budget that it is allying with a coalition of trade unions to push for change on this front. The likely compromise: a law that allows politicians to serve up to twelve years in either house but that, unlike the present system, prevents them from switching from one house to the other when they are termed out.

Electoral Reform.

The Monterey-based group Reform for Change is leading the charge to build public support for changes in how elections are conducted–particularly for open primaries and new methods of redistricting that would make elections more competitive.


Campuses across the state have seen a wave of protests and building occupations–some led by students, others by faculty and/or unions representing staff–against the massive cuts to, and the de facto privatization of, the state’s higher education infrastructure. On March 4 an array of unions and faculty and student groups will protest around California.