Clipboard clash

Constitutional convention campaign says it's being sabotaged by the ballot-initiative industry

Repair California signature gatherers seek support at San Francisco State University for a constitutional convention

When John Grubb switched jobs a few months ago to work for Repair California, a nonprofit that aims to remedy Sacramento's political dysfunction by revising the state Constitution, he never imagined how ruthless the political world could be for a public figure advocating for reform.

"I got a death threat myself this morning," Grubb confided in a recent telephone conversation with the Guardian. He declined to say from whom, and seemed to be wondering if he should have kept quiet about it. "Now we have our security guards at the building watching for this person," he added, trying to laugh it off as if unfazed.

One day earlier, Grubb had distributed a press release charging that Repair California was being subjected to intimidation, blacklisting, and other "dirty tricks" and strong-arm tactics from representatives of the state's major signature-gathering firms. These politically powerful companies are trying to quash Repair California's campaign for a California constitutional convention, he charged.

Ironically, it seems an initiative campaign that could reform how initiative campaigns are conducted in California has provoked the ire of the initiative campaign industry.

Repair California is circulating petitions to get a pair of initiatives on the November ballot asking voters if a constitutional convention should be called to reform state government. Despite having a healthy $3.6 million in funding, it has encountered major stumbling blocks toward collecting the 1.1 million signatures needed to qualify.

Paid signature gatherers were shouted down in the streets, threatened with the prospect of never working in the industry again, and spied on by informants from signature-gathering firms that then placed them on blacklists, according to Grubb. The nonprofit also alleges that representatives from these firms were seen throwing stacks of signed constitutional convention petitions into the trash.

There are six major signature-gathering firms in California that contract with political campaigns to circulate petitions for ballot initiatives. Through a network of regional coordinators, they hire independent contractors who are paid by the signature to stand on the street with clipboards soliciting voters' support.

The firms take in millions of dollars from each campaign, but for circulators who carry half a dozen petitions at once, the work comes in temporary bursts and moves from state to state. Paid signature gatherers who spoke with the Guardian said that being blacklisted could spell disaster — a hefty pay cut or being frozen out of a job completely.

Attorney Steven Miller, who works with the firm Hanson Bridgett and is representing Repair California, sent a cease and desist letter to at least three of the six major firms Feb. 2, a first step toward possible litigation. Miller told the Guardian that the firms' activities constitute an illegal boycott and a violation of antitrust laws. Their tactics also interfere with rights guaranteed in the California Constitution to circulate petitions and place initiatives on the ballot. "Nothing surprises me anymore, but this really surprised me," he said.

While Miller didn't say exactly which firms he sent letters to, the three names that came up in various off-record conversations on this matter were Kimball Petition Management, run by Fred Kimball; National Petition Management, run by Lee Albright; and Arno Political Consultants, run by Michael Arno.

Grubb formerly served as a spokesperson for the Bay Area Council, a business group based in San Francisco and the primary force behind Repair California. The council's push for a Sacramento shakeup generated a buzz last November when Clint Reilly, a renowned San Francisco political consultant who sits on the board of the Council, emerged from retirement to helm the campaign.