May 24, 2010
Stanford historian, venture capitalist energize voters over political reform
By Adam Gorlick
David Kennedy built his reputation as a historian at Stanford by looking backward and analyzing the past. His work and writing earned him a Pulitzer Prize and widespread acclaim as an expert on American history.
Noel Perry did just the opposite. As a venture capitalist, he always had his eye on the next best thing. He made his mark in Silicon Valley by investing in organic foods and educational software and toys.
Based on their early resumes alone, Kennedy and Perry would have made for an odd couple, assuming their paths would even cross. But their growing interest during the past few years in how California works and how it doesn't has turned them into partners struggling with a question that has no easy answer: How do you keep this troubled state from failing?
The solution won't come from lawmakers alone, they say. And it won't come solely from special interest groups or political movers and shakers. The voters have a strong say. But before ordinary Californians can weigh in with good ideas on how to break a political logjam in Sacramento, deal with a $20 billion budget deficit and address the state's ballot initiative process, they should have as much information as possible.
So Kennedy and Perry, along with academics at the University of California-Berkeley and Sacramento State, have created CaliforniaChoices.org, a nonpartisan clearinghouse for state governance reform issues. The website is being launched May 27, two weeks before the California primary.
"The properly informed public will make the right decisions, but getting the public properly informed is the trick," said Kennedy, co-director of Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West, a partner in the website project.
California Choices outlines four paths for government reform. It explains what's needed to revise the constitution, whether through the legislature, a series of ballot initiatives or a constitutional convention. It also explores ideas to fix the government by leaving the constitution alone.
The descriptions highlight the pros and cons for each option, and suggest ways citizens can take action and become involved with whichever route seems appealing.
"The state is in crisis," said Perry, who has funded and headed the nonpartisan research group Next 10 since 2003. "But the flip side of that is that there's an opportunity here. We have the chance to tap into the talent and intellectual capital that's here and come up with ways of improving the state."
The site and its organizers are not pushing any particular agenda for reform. The only thing they want is a healthier, more efficient government.
And that seems to be something voters are craving. According to recent Field Polls highlighted on the website, 79 percent of Californians think the state is on the wrong track and 95 percent believe the state's economy has hit "bad times."
"If California goes into a true financial tailspin, that would have economic, political and psychological implications that would ripple far beyond the boundaries of this state," said Kennedy. "It would be a lesson in how modern societies built on the American model cannot govern themselves in a time of crisis."
Kennedy's book, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for history. His focus on state government reform sprang from a conference the Bill Lane Center hosted about three years ago to discuss direct democracy and the state's ballot initiative process.
That led to a closer examination of government efficiency during a time marked by a yawning budget gap, increased political wrangling in Sacramento and mounting frustration among voters who were asked to go to the polls and decide issues ranging from the legality of gay marriage to the amount of room farms should provide for egg-laying chickens.
Another conference followed this past October. Politicians, government reform groups and academics met in Sacramento to discuss what steps could be taken to streamline one of the world's longest governing documents the California Constitution.
That's where Kennedy met Perry, who had founded Next 10 out of his growing concerns for the future of California.
A native of Rhode Island, Perry arrived in California in 1983 with more interest in finance than politics. He established Baccharis Capital Inc. as one of the first "socially responsible" venture capital funds, investing in education and health-oriented consumer products.
But 20 years later, he was turning more of his attention toward what was happening in Sacramento. Gov. Gray Davis was about to be recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the state's financial woes were mounting.
"There was no vision for the state," Perry said. "I felt that this was an area where I could make a contribution. I was concerned about the future of California, and I wanted to do something about it."
He started Next 10 to focus on improving the economy, environment and overall quality of life in California. The organization developed the "California Budget Challenge," an online tool that allows visitors to slice up the state's spending pie as they see fit while trying to keep the budget balanced. The idea is to help people understand the tradeoffs in the state budgeting process.
"I have a simplistic belief that more is better," Perry said. "The more people who get involved, the more we'll get the right answers."
When Perry showed up at the Lane Center's Sacramento conference six months ago, he was thinking about creating a website to rally voters around the idea of government reform. And he wanted some academic muscle behind the idea.
He found a willing partner in Kennedy, who was also searching for ways to engage Californians in a discussion about where the state is headed.
California Choices is what they came up with.
"I love this state," Kennedy said. "And those of us who care about it have a responsibility to take care of its future. That's true individually as well as institutionally for Stanford. Stanford must be a good neighbor and contribute to elevating and informing the public dialogue about what's going on in the state and what can be done to improve it."