As California Forward connects with thousands of people across the state about reform ideas to help repair our government, Executive Director Jim Mayer discusses what CA Fwd wants to do and how Californians can take part in the process and contribute their ideas and solutions. On the eve of CA Fwd’s new website launch, Mayer talked about the exciting developments that make fixing our state more of a reality than ever before.
Q: What is California Forward, and what is it trying to do?
JM: CA Fwd is a diverse group of Californians that are concerned about the future of the state. They know the state won’t be prosperous, safe, or healthy if our education and public safety systems don’t work. To make them work better, we must change the underlying governance: how we make decisions in California.
Q: How do you respond to people who say our state is broken beyond repair and can’t be fixed?
JM: We made all the rules we’re operating under. There isn’t anything we broke we can’t fix. We created the system we’ve got, and we can create a better system. It’s as simple as that.
Q: How can Californians participate?
JM: We’re engaging county leaders and stakeholders that really want to be involved in the nitty-gritty. Then, through community meetings and online, we put the proposals in front of people and find out whether they think the proposals would work. Also, what would they do to make them better? When we finish this process, we will know what the public wants, and we’ll be confident that what we put out there will actually work.
Q: How do you find common ground in such a diverse state? What are things that all Californians can agree on (other than “it’s broken”)?
JM: It’s actually not that hard. Most of the political system is set up to say how you’re different from everybody else. But when you go about this differently – asking, “What do you want this state to look like?” and “How do you want the decisions to get made?” – there is actually a lot of commonality. It’s not rocket science: People want sound fiscal decision-making, whether you’re red or blue. I don’t think the problem is coming up with an answer a majority of Californians will accept. The challenge is whether or not special interests will be able to thwart the public will.
Q: Who are the special interests you’re most worried about?
JM: The special interests are those people who only think about themselves. They have a stake in the status quo, and they don’t like change. They cross the spectrum from different labor unions to different business groups. But, at the end of the day, they must look beyond their toes to the horizon and become part of a long-term public interest solution.
Q: What does “bringing government closer to people” mean?
JM: Most of our essential services are delivered by community governments, but they’re currently funded and largely dictated by state agencies. We end up spending a lot of money, and we don’t get much done. We must restructure the roles and responsibilities of government, so community governments are empowered and have the resources and discretion to set priorities and be held accountable for results. Agencies are encouraged and have incentives to work together with community groups and other community governments to do a better job. That doesn’t mean there’s no statewide interest – we need to make sure everybody is moving in the same direction – but exactly how to get there is going to be different from region to region.
Q: What have you done? How do you say, “This is how California Forward is succeeding?”
JM: We’ve contributed to the passage of Proposition 11, the Citizens Redistricting initiative, and we’re diligent about making sure the Commission is capable, qualified, and diverse as it draws the lines that are going to govern our elections for the next decade. We also contributed analysis and supported the Top Two Primary, which will encourage all candidates and incumbents to talk to everybody in their district to earn their vote. These measures ensure that people who run for office – either as new candidates or incumbents – actually go out and talk to everybody in their district. We need to continue to do things that encourage politicians to be responsive to their communities.
We’ve also contributed analysis to term limits and brought together a bipartisan group of leaders to support term limit reform. There will be a term limit measure on a future ballot.
We must fix our fiscal system, and we’ve developed ideas on how to improve it. We cannot spend more money than we have, and we need to make sure the money we do have is well spent on schools, higher education, and the safety net for vulnerable Californians. But we’ve got more to do, and we’ll continue to work on those fiscal reforms.
Q: Do you feel the political parties are a big part of the problem?
JM: Political parties and their sources of funding have had too much control over who runs and who wins. In a democracy, this must be rebalanced, so the power is with the voters; they define their choices; and they select among those choices. When people vote and elected leaders speak to those voters, democracy gets stronger.
Q: What big things are happening at CA Fwd that people should be interested in and excited about?
JM: CA Fwd has gained a lot of momentum. We’re building a solid alliance of civic groups, business groups, and others that want to be part of the solution. This network of Californians wants to figure out how to stop the bleeding in our public systems and start making government work again. Over the next several months, we’re engaging that network to help figure out which governance reforms to move forward. Californians want to be part of this solution, and we’re going to give them a chance to shape their future.
This is the innovative and fun part, where Californians can really figure out what we need to get done at a community government level; how we coordinate on a regional scale around jobs, transportation, housing, and environmental protection; and how we maintain a statewide interest. This involves restructuring the relationships between the thousands of governments in our state, and it’s an exciting task.
Q: How does the man in Colton or the woman in Coalinga get involved?
JM: We want to hear from everybody. Over the last few years, we have personally connected with more than 50,000 Californians, and that’s being amped up. We’ll be conducting scores of meetings over the next six months, so people at rotary clubs or PTAs will know what their choices are and be able to tell us what they think. They’ll also have the opportunity to see the choices and share their thoughts online at cafwd.org.
Q: Take me to 2012, how will we know you’ve been successful?
JM: We will be successful, if we can build specific solutions that are broadly supported. First, the Legislature is likely to act. Our experience with the Legislature is, when they think the public is ready to make a change, they’ll jump in front of the parade. We’d like to give them that chance with a solid public interest answer. But whatever they don’t solve, we will move directly to the ballot in November 2012.
Q: How has the emergence of the Think Long Committee changed the work of CA Fwd?
JM: The Think Long Committee is a wonderful development. This is a group of internationally known, successful people in government and private enterprise. They have publicly acknowledged that the governance of California is broken; that fixing it is imperative not only to Californians but probably the nation; and that they want to invest their intellectual and financial capitol. We need more Think Long Committees, not fewer. This isn’t about competition; it’s about coordinating efforts among the diverse Californians who want to contribute to a solution.
Ed Coghlan is a communications consultant based out of California.