In Trendsetting California, Grassroots Organizing Brings Progressive Change

Workers react as the Los Angeles City Council, in a preliminary vote, approves a measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, June 2015.

A recent trip to Los Angeles reminded me that California is where America reinvents itself. Of course, the myth-making movie industry provides the best example of this maxim, but it proves just as true in terms of politics or social policies.

Consider, for example, the Golden State’s pushmi-pullyu relationship with taxes. By some accounts, the nation’s nearly three-decade love affair with low taxes—as well as the birth of the modern conservative movement—began in 1978 with California’s passage of Proposition 13, a ballot initiative that cut the state’s property taxes and capped future tax hikes.

Just as other fashionable Hollywood trends have spread eastward, so too did tax cutting fever. “The tax revolt swept across the country with astonishing speed in the wake of California’s favorable vote on Proposition 13 in 1978,” University of Kentucky political scientists David Lowery and Lee Sigelman wrote in a 1981 article for The American Political Science Review. “In 1978 alone, 17 states conducted initiatives on state and/or local taxation, and by 1980, 38 states had moved to reduce or at least stabilize taxes.”

In the following decades, any politician who dared discuss raising taxes may as well have swallowed a poison pill with respect to having a political future. Indeed, to truly understand this history, study how Howard Jarvis—a rock-ribbed Republican—led the 1978 California tax revolt. He might be considered the godfather of the “mad as hell brigade” that we recognize today as Tea Party activists.

But the times have changed in California.

A Los Angeles Times editorial summarized the effect of the political refusal to raise taxes in order to cover basic necessities:

[Y]ears of belt-tightening have left parts of the state safety net in tatters and pushed college costs out of the reach of many families. Cuts in aid to the poor and working poor in this year’s budget eliminated child-care subsidies for 14,000 children and preschool slots for 12,500 children. State aid for low-income seniors and the disabled is now as low as it was in 1983; welfare checks are smaller than they were 25 years ago. And K-12 spending per pupil remains $1,000 less than it was five years ago. California now spends less per student than all but three states.

So, in 2012, when California failed to meet its budget, voters reacted to the climate of austerity by supporting yet another ballot measure. Proposition 30—which passed with 55.4 percent of the votes cast—called for a temporary tax increase in order to meet the state’s fiscal responsibilities. This represented the first political victory for sensible taxation since before 1978.

The New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonpartisan think tank, analyzed California’s fiscal situation and concluded that the tax increases, which fell heaviest on the wealthy, didn’t harm economic growth. Carl Gibson, co-founder of US Uncut—the American version of a British grassroots organization dedicated to fighting corporate tax dodgers—cited the findings recently in a Huffington Post blog, noting:

The state’s coffers will gain approximately $6.8 billion in new revenue every year, all of which will be invested in public education. California saw 2.9 percent job growth in 2013, making it the third fastest-growing economy in the US. California will have an operational surplus of $9 billion by 2018, meaning even more public sector jobs created and a better economy for everyone. And because education is now a funding priority, California’s schoolchildren are set up to soar above and beyond national education averages. Well-educated kids means more people in the future able to take on high-skilled, good-paying jobs.

So why has California become so much more enlightened than, say, Kansas? Under Gov. Sam Brownback (R), the state has doubled down on tax cuts made in 2012, resulting in a fiscal mess.

During my visit to Los Angeles last week, I discovered a little known secret to California’s success: the resurgence of grassroots organizing. In fact, Anthony Thigpen, president of California Calls—an influential coalition of 31 community-based organizations in 12 California counties—confirmed that not only are activists hard at work, but they’re winning big and unexpected victories.

Thigpen, who has been involved in California politics for nearly three decades, spoke at a panel discussion during the Center for Community Change board meeting in Los Angeles.* He told us that grassroots activism is the underlying reason why progressive change is taking place in California.

In addition to the passage of Proposition 30 in 2012, Thigpen said community organizers registered new voters who, in turn, helped pass last year’s Proposition 47. That ballot initiative converted many nonviolent criminal offenses, such as drug and property crimes, from felonies into misdemeanors. It also requires the money saved from ceasing to prosecute such offenses as felonies to be spent on victim services, mental health care, and drug abuse treatment.

“Our secret weapon was registering large numbers of new and unexpected voters from our communities,” Thigpen said. “They never saw them coming.”

And, just before I arrived in Los Angeles, the city council approved milestone legislation that—if signed into law by Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) as expected—will raise the minimum wage in the city to $15 per hour by 2020. “This victory is a testament to the undeniable power of everyday people coming together in full force against income inequality,” Bob Schoonover, president of Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, Local 721, told the Los Angeles Times.

The roots of this resurgence in progressive action stretch back to the tumult of the riots that followed the 1992 exoneration of four white police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King. From the ashes of the burned buildings in South Central Los Angeles, Thigpen founded AGENDA, or Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives, a community organization created to rally residents in the impoverished and overlooked neighborhoods that were ground zero for the rioting. AGENDA has since become a new organization called Strategic Concepts in Organizing & Policy Education, or SCOPE, a leader in South Central Los Angeles’ revitalization efforts.

“We’ve been at this for over 20 years,” Gloria Walton, president and CEO of SCOPE, told the Center for Community Change board. “Out of the riots, we held house meetings all over the community to organize folks and to encourage them to become consistent voters. We have a model for change that can win.”

A fresh wind is blowing off the Pacific and across California, and I’m optimistic that it’s going to make its way across the nation.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

*Author’s note: I’m a member of the Washington-based Center for Community Change’s board.