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We usually gag when a politician, referencing his or her own brainchild, solemnly declares, "This is what democracy is all about." But when Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) uttered that most self-aggrandizing of phrases last week to describe his "There Oughta Be a Law" contest, we found ourselves swallowing it.
Sure, the contest is sort of silly. By asking constituents in the 21st District to come up with an idea for a law and submit a lengthy form describing their proposal to his office by Oct. 15, Simitian is inviting self-styled wonks to flood his staff with lame suggestions for Coke in the water fountains, four-day workweeks, and -- who knows? -- maybe even a municipal utility district for San Francisco.
But Simitian is taking the contest seriously. He'll select what he considers the best idea, introduce it in January, and invite the proposal's author to testify on behalf of the law in Sacramento.
That's not all. The lucky constituent will also get a California flag that once flew over the Capitol and lunch with Simitian in Sacramento.
"The joke with my staff was, "Lunch with me at the Capitol cafeteria? What's second prize?'" Simitian says.
The assemblyman, formerly mayor of Palo Alto and a supervisor on the Santa Clara County board, says he got the idea when he realized that in Sacramento, it's lobbyists -- not average Joes -- who bend lawmakers' ears with the assertion, "There oughta be a law." Finding it harder to connect with what he calls his thoughtful and vocal constituency, Simitian launched the contest.
He expects participants to conduct a fair amount of research before submitting an idea. The form on his Web site asks law-pitchers to note which politicians or legislative bodies would likely support or derail the proposal, how the law would impact the state's finances, and whether a similar law has ever been proposed. And he dismisses the argument that in asking his constituents to do such research, he's forsaking one of his primary obligations as an elected representative -- namely, to think up new laws.
"My job is to move an agenda forward that reflects the needs of the people I represent," Simitian says. "What better way to do that than to ask them for their own ideas? This is what democracy is all about."
Gulp -- the experts agree.
"Anything that encourages citizens to think about the legislative process is good, especially in a state where the initiative process funnels all the citizens' creativity," says Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. "The number of really serious suggestions might only be a handful, but he's got people in his district that are university professors, Silicon Valley executives. It's an idea I think he can claim as an innovation, but it's something other legislators should look at."
Although aimed mainly at the people living in his 21st District, which covers southern San Mateo County and northwestern Santa Clara County, Simitian says the contest "welcomes all comers." They can get more information by calling his district office at (650) 688-6330.
On the streets of Palo Alto, most residents said they thought Simitian's contest was a grand idea. In fact, the first person we approached, an abstract artist named François Eril, didn't hesitate when asked what kind of law he would propose. Finishing his gyro at a sidewalk cafe, he wiped crumbs from his mouth and declared: "To legalize pot."
In the wake of the terrorist attack on the East Coast, some Bay Area far-left groups worried that the tragedy could make their own lives more difficult. The day after the attack, several Bay Area political groups circulated a memo via Web sites and e-mails from activist "Alex Lee" describing "security protocol" in the aftermath of Sept. 11. ("Lee" did not respond to repeated e-mail inquiries about his identity or affiliation.)
"People doing social justice work ... are often very visibly anti-government, vocal, passionate, and are seen as crazy at best by the mainstream media, and at worst, as "terrorists' ourselves," the memo said. "The government will hold many of us under tighter scrutiny. ... The U.S. may soon be at war, and we may soon experience intense political repression. And all people involved in social justice and revolutionary movements will be targeted."
The memo offered several pointers:
"- Don't use slang that incorporates violent words.
"- Don't joke about recent events.
"- Don't praise the destruction, especially publicly. Don't talk about what happened in positive terms."
The memo went on to caution activists that telephones, computers, cars, and outdoor spaces can be bugged. And the memo offered one final piece of advice, perhaps a little too late: "Don't be paranoid."