Oklahoma's version of TABOR, the Stop OverSpending measure, quickly found itself the subject of an all-out "blocking" effort by the public employee unions and a vast coalition of alphabet soup groups that seem to really cherish overspending. People opposing the initiative were encouraged not only to complain to store managers to have petitioners denied access to store entrances and parking lots, they were instructed to prevaricate for their cause: blockers have publicly admitted to lying to store managers about the behavior of citizens petitioning outside stores.
This wasn't merely a few renegades. Jeanne Berg, a liberal labor activist from Oregon, was hired to run a campaign of harassment. Blockers were hired from throughout the country and paid as much as $100 a day. Their function? Swarm around anyone out circulating the petition and create enough street theater and mayhem to chase away citizens who, since the measure was overwhelmingly popular, would otherwise be likely to sign.
Soon the petition drive's prospects looked bleak. The harassment made it very difficult to retain petition circulators. The only avenue to complete the drive successfully would be to find additional manpower, especially experienced petitioners.
Unlike most initiative states, Oklahoma has a residency requirement allowing only Oklahoma residents to circulate a petition. But when the petition company checked with state officials to determine what constituted a resident, those officials said that a person could move to Oklahoma and immediately declare residency — and begin petitioning.
Just to be safe, since sometimes simple law can be made amazingly complicated, I asked for any relevant legal precedent. The ruling in a recent challenge to an Oklahoma petition to ban cock-fighting seemed clear: residency was determined by an individual's intention to be a resident.
A number of petitioners moved to Oklahoma, declared residency, and proceeded to gather signatures on the various petitions. Ultimately, both the spending cap and the property rights measure garnered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Then, the various forces of big government that had worked so hard to block the vote, joined by a who's who of corporate CEOs and the heads of energy companies and banks (can you say "daddy welfare"?), challenged the petition. And the Oklahoma Supreme Court came to their aid, providing a much different standard for residency than in the past. The judges now equated residency with a "permanent home."
How permanent was "permanent"? One petition circulator, who moved to Oklahoma in September of 2005 and was still living there in July of the following year, was ruled not to be a resident.
The court thus struck enough signatures from the 300,000 gathered to deny the people of Oklahoma a vote on the spending cap measure.
Yes, it was a terrible injustice. But it was trumped this past week by further injustice, the indictment charging Susan Johnson, Rick Carpenter and me with conspiracy to defraud the state of Oklahoma for allegedly "willfully" violating the state's residency statute. For this alleged crime Attorney General Drew Edmondson seeks to imprison us for up to ten years.
Susan says she can't even remember ever getting a speeding ticket. Rick and I have both admittedly sped before . . . but our occasional automotive misadventures did not quite prepare us for the current prosecution.
While I keep pinching myself to wake up from this nightmare, you might be wondering what on earth is going on?
You see, stopping the people from voting to cap spending wasn't enough. The people who run the state of Oklahoma want to make certain that upstart reformers like Rick Carpenter don't dare attempt any future initiatives, and that professional petition managers like Susan Johnson or "outside agitators" like me quickly think better of providing any assistance to such citizen-initiated efforts.
The goal is to scare, to intimidate, to silence; it is happening more and more in Oklahoma at the hands of Attorney General Edmondson — and throughout the country as our politics becomes increasingly regulated, controlled, and criminalized. Politics has lurched off the highway of democracy, off the curb and back into the old insider system, the gutter method of accumulated power.
Once upon a time you could participate in politics without a battery of attorneys. Once upon a time you could lose an election without fear that one's opponents would use the power of their office to imprison you. No more.
Well, it is definitely scary. Personally, it's not fun to think of what impact this legal truncheon to the head could have on my wife, kids, grandchild. But we'll not allow our rights to be bullied away. Nor will we stand idly by while the one process capable of reining in corrupt politics — citizen initiative and referendum — is threatened into non-existence.
We, the Oklahoma 3, didn't conspire to break the law. Instead, we sought to understand it and abide by it, even as we sought to change other laws. We now face the full onslaught of the state of Oklahoma. It is apparent that this retaliation is not for any crime, but for our political beliefs and our audacity to put them into action.
Maybe it's time for all Americans — conservative, liberal, populist, libertarian — to "conspire" together to take back our political system from the gutter.
Before it's too late.