In California’s June 2010 primary election consumer groups defeated two corporate-backed initiatives simply by pointing out the corporate cash behind them.
Pacific Gas and Electric spent more than $46 million on Proposition 16 to create a nearly insurmountable two-thirds-vote hurdle before a municipality could create a public utility to challenge the company. Listening to the PG&E advertising, the average voter would think the issue was taxpayer waste, preserving local police departments, and taxpayers’ right to vote, not a big utility wanting to stifle competition through a political power play.
Opponents had no money to advertise against the measure but launched a “netroots” rebellion on Facebook, Twitter, and via e-mail that included authentic homemade videos complaining about PG&E’s corruption. Angry PG&E customers in northern California created buzz that reached voters in the south who didn’t know much about the utility company’s high rates, power shutoffs, and new “smart” meters that seemed to show higher usage.
The news media rightly tagged the initiative as a PG&E power grab. State-mandated disclosures at the end of the misleading television advertisements also told voters Pacific Gas and Electric was the sponsor.
That was enough for 52 percent of Californians to defeat Prop 16.
Prop 17 on the June 2010 California ballot pitted Consumer Watchdog against our old nemesis Mercury Insurance. Mercury spent $16 million on the initiative to allow it to raise or lower rates based on a factor that voters ruled illegal in 1988 under Prop 103: whether or not you had insurance previously.
Courts and regulators had told the company no repeatedly, but hidden behind an industry-sponsored “coalition” of nice-sounding groups, which largely exist only around election time, the insurance company went to voters under the pretense of offering $250 “discounts” for continuous coverage.
Thanks to flawless media advocacy by Doug Heller and Harvey Rosenfield, every major editorial board in the state weighed in against Proposition 17 on the grounds that it was deceptive, that it would hurt those who didn’t drive while in domestic military service, and that it would unfairly raise rates for the unemployed, those least able to afford it.
We also raised about $1 million for television advertising to warn the public an insurance company was behind Prop 17. We knew we had to advertise because 17’s promise of free money in people’s pockets was just too appealing.
All we could say in the fifteen-second television ads that we could afford was this: When has an insurance company spent millions of dollars on a ballot measure to save you money? The message was enough to defeat Proposition 17 with 52 percent of the vote.
When the voters finally turned our way at 3:00 a.m. on election night, I felt a profound faith in the electorate that had been missing for a few years. We were outspent twelve to one. Consumers were promised $250 each in ubiquitous advertising. The turnout was extraordinarily conservative because the Democratic gubernatorial primary was uncontested. Still, the voters saw through the lie. We won by about 200,000 votes out of the approximately 5 million cast.
Excerpted from The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell: How To Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws And Get The Change We Voted For (Chelsea Green).