John Cox's mother used to come home crying. A teacher on Chicago's South Side, Mrs. Cox was appalled at the cronyism that put incompetent men in charge of the city's public schools. Kids got a poor education, she'd tell her son, with a “financial death sentence” all but guaranteed.
Today, John Cox — now a 60-year-old attorney, real estate mogul, and veteran dark horse candidate in various state and national political campaigns — cites his mother as an inspiration behind his new crusade: a ballot initiative that would require California legislators to wear the logos of their top 10 political donors whenever they take the Assembly floor.
It's not a new idea — comedian Bill Maher suggested something similar to Larry King in 2000, as did the 2006 Robin Williams flop Man of the Year — but thanks to social media and a political moment hijacked by Donald Trump's gaseous, deep-pocketed run for the White House, Cox's proposal may stand a chance of collecting the 356,000 signatures needed to make the ballot. He has signature gatherers and the money to pay them.
“This isn't a lark,” Cox says, perhaps self-conscious about his failed bids for Congress, the U.S. Senate, and the presidency.
Nor is it like his other great political brainstorm: the Neighborhood Legislature, a plan to shrink California's electoral districts to the size of neighborhoods to keep campaigns low-budget and accessible. Like that idea, the logo initiative is a way to “wake people up to the system of legalized bribery” that is state politics, Cox says.
According to Maplight, a nonprofit that traces the influence of money in politics, state-level candidates and ballot measures in California have raised $43.6 million since the beginning of the 2015-16 election cycle. (Former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's gubernatorial campaign committee leads the pack at more than $3.5 million.)
“People deserve to know the truth about whose interests their legislators are representing,” says Daniel G. Newman, Maplight's co-founder and president. “It's essential for a functioning democracy that we draw back the curtain on the moneyed interests plaguing the California state Legislature.”
Cox says Sacramento is awash in “professional fundraisers,” politicians who then feed a parasitic class of consultants and lobbyists. Even worse, according to him, are the state's bloated senate districts — such as District 11, which includes San Francisco and represents more than 933,000 people.
“Voters say, 'The funders are going to win anyway, so I'll just watch the Food Channel instead,'” Cox says.
“Is that good for democracy?”
So far, his logo proposal has garnered bemused write-ups but no political endorsements. State Sen. Mark Leno, who represents San Francisco, declined to comment, and city supervisors Scott Wiener and Jane Kim, both of whom are running to succeed Leno, hadn't commented by press time.
But who needs politicians? Perhaps ironically, given his distaste for big money, Cox is more interested in currying favor from Silicon Valley billionaires who might seek to disrupt the political-industrial complex.
“If Mark Zuckerberg wants to change the world,” Cox says, “he ought to think about changing the structure of our politics.”