‘Simple’ idea looks to make big change in legislature

‘Simple’ idea looks to make big change in legislature
Rancho Santa Fe resident John Cox is looking to bring a simple idea, but a drastic change, to California’s state legislature. His Neighborhood Legislative reform group looks to shrink the size of legislative districts and grow the amount of legislators. Courtesy photo

RANCHO SANTA FE — It is a true citizen legislature. It is the largest state legislature in the country. And it is what John Cox wants to see implemented into California’s legislature system. 

“It” is the New Hampshire state legislature, and Rancho Santa Fe resident Cox wants to replicate the system in California. To do this, he hopes to establish his group, the Neighborhood Legislature, in Sacramento.

The Neighborhood Legislature is Cox and a small committee of about 30 people, which he describes as “not political professionals,” comprised of business professionals, retirees and others. What they’re proposing is an overwhelming change to the state’s legislative districts.

Started here in San Diego County with Cox a couple of years ago, the Neighborhood Legislature has so far introduced itself into Orange County and Los Angeles.

“California’s legislative districts are just humungous,” Cox said.

In California there are 80 members in the State Assembly, 40 members in the State Senate. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state’s 2012 estimated population is listed at more than 38 million.

That equals approximately 475,000 constituents for every one state legislator.

“What that means,” Cox said, “is that all campaigns for the state legislature are huge. They require millions of dollars; they require candidates who give up their entire lives for politics; it means that … usually the only people that run for the state legislature are wealthy people or are political professionals who have a lot of connections to be able to raise money.”

And the group’s intended goal to remedy this — to shrink the size of campaigns and grow the amount of legislators for the state.

What the Neighborhood Legislature aims to do is take the 120 districts in California and subdivide them by 100. That means there are only 5,000 to 10,000 people in a district, Cox explained.

Cox, who ran for president as a GOP nominee in 2007, spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, where he came away from watching the Town Hall-style meetings, asking himself if that could work in a state as large as California.

He credits his presidential run for introducing him to New Hampshire, but it also gave him the idea that they’ve got to change the structure, Cox said.

Around the same time, Cox met Fergus Cullen, who was the then-chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Cullen now is principal of Fergus Cullen Communications, a public affairs consulting company.

He’s familiar with Cox and his reform idea, and says that it’s considered a “high compliment” to have New Hampshire’s model looked at for use in other states.

“People in California might laugh at this, but New Hampshire has a population of 1.3 million people,” Cullen said. “It has a state legislature with 424 members; there are 24 state senators and 400 members of the state house.

“They are citizen volunteers; they are paid $100 a year and each person represents roughly 3,500 people,” he added.

Much of the Neighborhood Legislature is based on the New Hampshire model.

“Most people run for the state legislature here (New Hampshire) without spending a dime,” Cullen said. “We do not have tax payer funded elections here; part of it being a true citizen legislature is that most people can run without spending a dime,” he said.

“Most people would run without ordering signs, or doing a mailer or printing a handout; lots of the them do,” adding, “but … even those who spend some money will do it for less than $500.”

Does that make them an effective legislative body?

“There’s no question that it is very democratic with a small ‘d,’” Cullen said. “Our legislature here has switched control between the parties three times in the last four elections, it’s been very responsive to the voters in that sense,” he said.

“In New Hampshire, the Democratic Party candidates won large majorities in 2006, 2008 and 2012, but Republicans won a large majority in 2010. That is proof positive that it is very responsive to the people.”

But could this model work in a state like California?

“When I look at state legislative seats there (California) … a state senator has a bigger district than a member of Congress has. Somebody like me, from afar, looks at that and says, ‘How do elected officials really have any connection to the people they represent?’

“Here (New Hampshire), people would expect to know their legislators and they would certainly expect to call them up on their home phone number, which is listed publically, and speak directly to the person. I would imagine in California, not only does that not happen, there’s no expectation that it would happen,” Cullen said.

Cox said that if people want to change the dysfunction in the state, they’re going to have to contribute a little bit of time and effort.

“Up to now,” Cox said, “No one has come up with an idea that really made sense for replacing the legislature with a body like this.”

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