(originally published at Fox & Hounds Daily)
I know I’ve never been your favorite. Which is why I almost didn’t write this letter. It’s probably a waste of time.
But you can only turn 100 once. And as you remember, mom, my centennial birthday is Monday. And just like always, my brother is getting all the attention.
You didn’t forget my birthday, mom, did you? You’re 162 years old, and you’re not known for your long memory. But on Oct. 10, 1911, you – the state of California – gave birth to me. It was at a special election, with the voters attending.
Of course, it wasn’t just me – Referendum – who was born that day – but also my two siblings, Initiative and Recall. We were the direct democracy triplets.
But let’s be honest. You never loved me as much as my brother Initiative. From the beginning, he got all the attention. He was always in the spotlight. And everyone wanted to play with him. After 100 years, nothing’s changed. He’s still the life of the party. Each year, Californians file 100 initiatives – or sometimes more — with the attorney general. And me? There have been fewer than 85 referendums filed in the century that I was born.
Now all the attention Initiative got was OK with Recall. He’s practically a hermit. He shows up at the occasional school board or city council, but statewide, he’s used only once a century.
But the Initiative’s spotlight bothers me. I mean, yes, he’s sexy. Yes, he allows you to circumvent the entire legislative process and try to do things directly. But he’s reckless and irresponsible. He allows himself to be used to pass big bonds with no mechanism for paying back the money. He’s always off limiting taxes and mandating spending in ways that have made the budget such a rotten mess. And he’ll even violate people’s civil rights.
And there’s no way to fix his mistakes. Once Initiative does something, the whole state is pretty much stuck with him forever. Despite his dirty record, everyone loves him. He’s like Bill Clinton or a Kardashian.
If life were fair, a lot of that attention would go to me. I mean, I’m the answer to what everyone says they want. Citizen engagement? I force voters to actually pay attention to what their government does and vote on their actions. I’m not about circumvention of the legislature – I’m about creating conversations between the people and their elected leaders. What could be better than that? You’d think that it would be easy to play with me. But in California, it’s harder to qualify a referendum than an initiative – because there’s so little time (only 90 days) and the same big number of signatures needed for an initiative statute. Heck, four different groups said they were going to do Referenda for next year’s elections – and they’ve all given up.
But the worst indignity is this 100th birthday thing. It’s my centennial too, but have you read the press or been to the events? People say we’re celebrating the centennial of direct democracy. But all anyone really writes or talks about is Initiative. His accomplishments. His failures. His future.
It’s rare that anyone mentions me.
Hey, mom. It’s my birthday party too.
And I’ll cry if I wanna.