Reform Follows Function

How to fix the political system in Texas in eight easy steps.

November 2007By Comments

In the center of things: The author on the campaign trail.
Photograph by Erin Trieb

It’s hard to believe that a year has come and gone since I lost the race for governor to a man in a $5,000 suit. That’s almost as bad as losing to the guy you’d rather go to a barbecue with and then discovering he plans to barbecue the world. What have I learned in all this time? That we’re not in Minnesota, Toto. If we’d been in Minnesota, we would have won. In fact, we won the race every place but Texas. Meanwhile, Minnesota maintains its status as the number one state for health care coverage. Texas, perhaps predictably, continues to hold down its position at the back of the caboose of the Sunset Limited. And how are we doing on education? Ask any teacher. Better yet, ask any student a few rudimentary questions about history, literature, science, or math.

Like I said during the campaign, we need to reform our political system, folks. Why is this so important? Have you ever tried to go visit your congressman and forgotten your checkbook? Have you ever wondered who actually writes the legislation that becomes the law of the land? Have you by now realized that every time a bell rings, another lobbyist gets his wings? There are good legislators, of course, who are just as frustrated as the rest of us. But unfortunately, they are rarely in power positions. Something about the system tends to beat you down after a while, and you realize that to have any voice at all, even to get reelected, you have to go along to get along. The lobbyists and our so-called leaders are necessary evils. It’s not unusual for lobbyists to write laws themselves and give marching orders to their bought-and-paid-for legislators. That’s why some observers of the Texas Legislature have taken to calling the section of the gallery where the lobbyists sit “the owners’ box.”

How do we get these career politicians and lobbyists out of the system? How can we effectively clean out the political stables? Unfortunately, the Crips and the Bloods, like bullies on a playground, are not going to help us achieve clean government. Their mind-set is almost entirely one of hanging on to power—whatever it takes. They care much more about getting themselves reelected than they do about helping the people of Texas. A political leader should be like a Wal-Mart greeter: The first thing out of his mouth should be “How can I help you?” Instead, the career politician enters a room full of people asking himself, “Who’s here who can help me?” Remember, it’s poly-ticks. (“Poly” means more than one; “ticks” are bloodsucking parasites.)

As the first person to get on the ballot in Texas as an independent candidate for governor in 123 years, I am in a rather unique position. I had to leap over every hurdle and jump through every hoop the system could dream of to block my progress. And this is not just a problem in Texas. The two parties do not want to share the American stage with anyone—they want it all to themselves. George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Davy Crockett, and Sam Houston were not only great independent thinkers and leaders but also enemies of the Crips and Bloods of their times. In more-recent years, the two-party monopoly did everything it could to destroy Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, and Ross Perot. The only thing the two parties seem to agree on is that there should be no new parties, no new candidates or voters, and no new ideas.

Well, regardless of whether I run again, I have a few new ideas. Here are my suggestions for a political reform agenda in Texas.

Same-day voter registration. This will make it possible for people to register and vote on Election Day. States with SDVR enjoy voter turnout rates that are, on average, nearly 14 percent higher than states without it. Real democracy means getting more people into the process so that the true will of the people can be accurately measured and heard. SDVR has been shown, in particular, to increase the participation of young people. Jesse Ventura told me that he wouldn’t have won the governor’s race in Minnesota in 1998 without SDVR and the youth vote. This is not surprising; independent candidates often tend to attract younger and newer voters. But SDVR will also encourage participation by the many voters who do not become interested in the campaign until just weeks before an election, by which time, in Texas, registration rolls are closed. These people, whom my campaign manager, Dean Barkley, refers to not unkindly as “cave dwellers,” represent the majority of people in our state. Why would anyone want to keep young voters, new voters, and the majority of the citizens of our state away from the polls? Next time you meet up with the Crips or the Bloods, you might ask them what they’re so afraid of.

Mandatory voting. This sounds bad, but it really isn’t. Australia’s been doing it with great success for some time now. It works like this: Every citizen is required to show up at the polls and have his or her name checked off; if you don’t show up, you’re fined something nominal, like twenty bucks. In Australia, the turnout is often as high as 95 percent, and political corruption is much less of an issue than it is here. If we had mandatory voting in Texas, I’d be in the Governor’s Mansion right now with my five dogs, the Friedmans, and we’d all be smoking Cuban cigars around the poker table.

Fair ballot access. Texas is one of the most difficult states for an independent candidate or a new party to get on the ballot. What are the other states? I don’t know. The peasant with the withered arm wouldn’t tell me. Maybe you can Google it when you get home. The point is that petition requirements in Texas are outdated and impractical, and the powers that be like it that way. I had to collect more than 45,000 signatures in two months, and they all had to be notarized. We succeeded in getting almost four times that number, but believe me, it wasn’t something I’d ever want to have to do again. And nobody should have to do it.

Initiative and referendum. Texas does not currently allow citizens this right, but it should. It’s the reason women’s suffrage, labor rights, Social Security, and many other reforms were passed in America. Most Texans, for instance, favor legalized casino gambling and do not favor toll roads. Real political reforms occur when citizens are able to place their own initiatives on the ballot.

Fair and open debates. First of all, there were no “debates” last time around. There was one so-called debate, thanks to Rick Perry, and it was held on Texas-OU weekend, a time that was guaranteed to attract the smallest number of viewers possible (the governor turned down at least six other chances to debate). Ventura told me that in the Minnesota governor’s race, he participated in more than sixteen debates, many of them televised statewide. He didn’t really get the hang of it until he had a few under his belt, at which point he began kicking his opponents’ behinds. And enough with the rigid formats and scripting. When the debate is stage-managed by political handlers, it’ll always result in a Jeopardy-like situation favoring slick careerists over newcomers every time. I’m not making excuses. I thought of a lot of good answers, but most of them were in the car going home. By then, of course, the “debate” was over. A nonpartisan entity should be created to develop fair and clear criteria for the inclusion of all qualified candidates. And there should be many debates—the more, the merrier.

Publicly funded campaigns. Special-interest money is the lifeblood of most candidates. When those candidates are elected, they use political appointments and legislation that favor the special interests as payback. Privately financed campaigns have disenfranchised too many Texans for too long, and incumbents spend more time fund-raising for reelection than they do working for the citizens who elected them. Publicly financed campaigns would eliminate the influence of special interests and would level the playing field for all candidates. Increased registration fees for lobbyists and 10 percent surcharges on lobbying expenditures and other independent expenditures would provide millions of dollars in funding for Texas legislative and statewide races. Texas should also join the states—including Arizona, Maine, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Vermont—that have adopted “clean election” laws. The system offers full public financing for candidates who agree to spending limits and reject private contributions.

Lobbying reform. Stop the revolving door between state service and lobbying. Place a ban on any Texas elected official or Texas state employee becoming a lobbyist in Texas within two years of leaving or retiring from his state position.

Redistricting reform. The practice of allowing elected officials to draw their own election districts must stop. This type of political extremism lets the party in power take unfair advantage and results in less competition in our elections. I propose using the Iowa model of a nonpartisan redistricting commission. In light of the myriad political scandals that have dominated the headlines for the past year, it has become increasingly clear that we must end our anything-goes system and restore honesty and integrity to Texas politics.

As I always say, “Politics is the only field in which the more experience you have, the worse you get.” My personal advice to Texans and Americans is very, very simple: Never reelect anybody. That would be the best reform of all.

Related Content