Walkers for Gravel

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It figures that in Berkeley, where people are most comfortable communicating with their fellow citizens by bumper sticker and placard, that someone is going through the neighborhood with hand-scrawled flyers urging local pedestrians (these things would be invisible to drivers unless they decide to motor down the sidewalk, which come to think of it is not out of the question here) to check out the Democratic candidate who makes Dennis Kucinich look like an Eisenhower Republican.

I did as the signs commanded and visited a few Mike Gravel-related sites. Well, listen, first of all it’s been jarring to hear his name. I’ve been thinking that the Mike Gravel (the last name is gruh-VELL, emphasis on the second syllable) seeking the Democratic nomination must be the son of the old Mike Gravel, the senator from Alaska first elected in the misty 1960s. But no, the old and new Mike Gravel are the same guy. So going online has already been educational.

Beyond that I’ve got mixed feelings. The guy advocates so much I think makes sense or at least ought to be discussed seriously: a reform of the federal tax system to spread the pain (hey, in my heart I’ll really hurt for Halliburton); a move to guaranteed national health care; an aggressive policy on climate change; and in the shorter term, a switch from the practice of shooting first and asking questions later the Bush regime has employed to such wonderful effect in Iraq and elsewhere.

I don’t care for one of his big initiatives, though: a proposal to create a system of national voter referendums similar to those that California and many other states use more and more to decide big policy and budget questions. I don’t like the proposal because I think it’s proving to be a practical, political and constitutional disaster in California.

Among other things: Each ballot is longer than the last; huge amounts of money are spent to sway the voters to one side or other on questions that the Legislature and governor have punted on; the elections are decided by a non-representative slice of the state’s people (the older, more affluent white folks who go to the polls in the largest numbers); and the results suck: thanks to the initiative process we have seen passage of Proposition 13, which limits property taxes and has led to the slow strangulation of public services across the state; Proposition 187, a cynical and heartless attempt to cut off social services to illegal immigrants; Proposition 209, a measure designed to kill affirmative action in public institutions. (Oh, gosh: Is my distaste for lunkhead conservatism showing?)

Take money out of the process and make participation universal, and I’m all for it.

Back to Gravel (who would try to take money out of the political campaign process, by the way): Probably the saddest thing about our system is that it’s so hard for someone like him, someone who has staked out positions away from the safe center, to get anything like a serious hearing. It’s as if even the people who might agree with some of what he says agree that it’s just too goofy to believe that anyone running on these issues could ever have a chance to govern. That’s what I find myself thinking, anyway. Where’s the hope or the heart in the system when you feel that the same old crap is the only “realistic” option for the future?

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