Consumer advocate Jamie Court, author of "The Progressive Guide to Raising Hell." (Photo: Chelsea Green Publishing)
Acclaimed consumer advocate Jamie Court has used his activist know-how to leverage huge changes for average people over the past two decades. President of Consumer Watchdog, he has mastered the art of turning anger into change, and his new book, "The Progressive Guide to Raising Hell", is a toolkit for direct democracy - a step-by-step guide for citizens to pressure the right people and use the right tactics to get the change they want.
Joni Praded for Chelsea Green: You've been called a hellraiser by the best of them. How did you come to be known as an activist who gets results?
Jamie Court: I've rabble-roused on a lot of issues - but some of my first big battles were against insurance companies. When you fight those giants day in and day out, you have to raise hell or you don't get respect or results. As the president of Consumer Watchdog, the American insurance industry's greatest nemesis, I have found that if you want to beat an insurance company, you need to generate enough heat and light about their abuses.
During one of our first hellraising campaigns - to stop health insurance companies from continually denying claims in the early 1990s - we faxed a different picture and story of an HMO "casualty of the day" for five months to every member of Congress and hundreds in the press. The "people first" strategy got noticed on the Hill and off because we were the first to put a different David in Goliath's face every day. Soon we became a source for those in the media and the government who wanted to find real people who could talk about problems with the insurance industry.
What launched your career as an activist?
My first job out of college in 1989 was canvassing door-to-door to raise money for insurance reform Proposition 103. This was the most successful progressive ballot measure in American history, a transfer of tens of billions of dollars in wealth from insurers to policyholders. Insurance companies were fighting back in the courts and I was collecting support to defend against the measure. I would knock on doors in a different neighborhood every night for about five hours with the expectation I would raise "quota," about $110 per night. On the canvass, you have to get results every night or you don't have a job. I averaged about 200 bucks per night. I loved the job and the challenge, the notion that I was connecting people and persuading them to join together in order to build their power. You've got nothing to lose on the canvass, so you lay it all on the line at every door. Even today, I find the best advocates started out by training on a canvass.
After that, I organized low-income people and religious congregations to save public-assistance programs from budget cuts, and ultimately from destruction by President Clinton's welfare deform scheme. When you represent the poorest of the poor in a budget or legislative battle, you have to find a way of getting elected officials' attention. That's when I first learned how to raise some hell to get some respect.
And how did you do that?
We didn't have money to give out in campaign contributions or to hire lobbyists, but we had a lot of poor people with very sincere and authentic stories to tell. So we found dramatic ways to feature their humanity. For example, we bused hundreds of homeless people to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors from Skid Row, and signed each of them up for the two-minute public comment, required by law, to talk about their plight.
The chairwoman of the board was furious that we brought so many people and that their comments would take so much time. It was like a homeless filibuster. The supervisors just didn't want to have to look these poor folks in the eye. So the chairwoman brokered a deal on the spot to delay the cuts just to prevent all these people from talking. That's when I started to get a reputation for some unusual tactics.
When you have little money and lots of people to represent, you need to find the most effective, creative way to make your point. That pisses some people off, but others appreciate what you are doing and rally to your cause. After you piss off enough people, most insiders realize that they cannot change you or destroy you and just have to deal with you.
In your new book, "The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell," you speak to those who voted Obama and other liberals into office in the last election, but are now losing faith that real change will happen. They are getting downright mad, and you tell them to get even madder. Why?
There's a Bertolt Brecht poem about an old German woman during the depression who kept showing up, week in and week out, at the grocery checkout line with all her groceries but no money to pay for them. When asked why, she said this: if we don't show up, how will they know we can't afford the food?
If people are happy with things, or seem to be, why would anything change?
We shouldn't bury our anger, but embrace it. When we get angry, we need to feel that anger fully, reflect on its causes - then we can turn that emotion into power by speaking up so others can join us. In the age of social media connection, in particular, the anger we express about injustice has the ability to spread quickly and hit its target hard.
Every year my group, Consumer Watchdog, hosts the Rage for Justice Dinner, which recognizes those who get pissed off and do something about it. They turned their anger into change. Last year we honored Dennis Quaid, whose newborn twins were given a massive overdose in the hospital that almost killed them. Dennis made the hospital spend $60 million on electronic medical record keeping and his advocacy helped make the case for a $20 billion federal investment in electronic medical records. Without rage, there can be no justice, because it is the fuel of the movement against injustice. Getting pissed off is the true power of the people if you have the right tactics and a reasonable solution built on the bedrock of strong public opinion.
What kind of changes do you want that populist rage to usher in?
Many of us who voted for President Obama in 2008 had an expectation that he would truly reform health care, rein in Wall Street, stand up to the oil companies ruining the climate and not give in to the military-industrial complex. There are a lot of pissed-off progressives right now who need to stay engaged, rather than turn away from politics, or the Tea Party will be the only safe place for angry citizens to express themselves. Progressives need to be honest about their anger, speak up and have a strategy to move America forward that doesn't rely upon Obama or Congress.
The public option to the private health insurance market, for example, is still a possibility at the state level if progressives take up arms in the ballot initiative process to create the option themselves. Wall Street won't regulate itself, but the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers all of us a real opportunity, for the first time, to petition a federal agency to stop financial abuses that impact us. But consumers must engage.
The Gulf crisis is the best opportunity yet for real climate change legislation, but it won't happen unless progressives insist the legislation really challenge the polluters and not give away too much to the green tech financiers.
Peace, not war, was Obama's promise, but he foolishly conceded to the war hawks. Progressives have tremendous leverage now to confront Obama, force an exit from Afghanistan and redirect the out-of-control military budget back to domestic priorities -like jobs, schools and health care.
In your book, you outline what you call the ten rules of populist power - essentially ten rules for forcing change. Some are quite surprising. Which of these rules was the hardest to learn, and to act upon?
The most difficult rule is always "Make it personal for decision makers." The minute you make it personal for them, they try to make it personal for you. Politicians claim they will never talk to you again, or give you their vote. Sometimes they tell their friends not to support you. There are still a couple of business-friendly legislators in the California statehouse who won't forgive us for publishing their health insurance industry contributions years ago; they won't even talk to us. They took a hit with their constituents for the connection between their money and their votes.
When we have made the fight personal for CEO's and executives, powerful companies and interest groups have tried to put us out of business by asking donors to stop funding us. We get lawsuit threats alleging defamation and threats of legislation to worsen consumers' lot if we keep going. We have lost donors because we made it personal.
The powerful don't like to be challenged personally, but they rarely concede to change if they are not.
You and the organization you run, Consumer Watchdog, have organized some very successful ballot-box campaigns in California. What were some of those campaigns and why did you choose to go the direct-democracy route?
The most successful populist ballot initiative in American history was Proposition 103, which passed in 1988 despite $60 million in insurance industry opposition. Consumer Watchdog's founder Harvey Rosenfield authored the initiative, which has saved motorists $62 billion on their auto insurance bills according to a recent report by the Consumer Federation of America. The legislature had required all Californians to buy auto insurance but refused to make it affordable by regulating auto insurance premiums. Since the politicians would not bite the insurance industry fingers that fed them, Harvey had to go to the voters directly.
Similarly, when the California legislature refused to pass laws giving patients the right to challenge HMO bureaucrats, we went to the ballot, alongside the California Nurses Association, with one of the first HMO patients' bill of rights in the nation. We didn't win the first time around, but by 1998, California had the strongest HMO patient protections in America.
Strong ballot measures are almost always an answer to political gridlock. Politicians won't move unless they face a real threat at the ballot box, which is how some of my friends helped force the toughest financial privacy legislation in America. They had the signatures for a ballot measure in hand and made the legislature act.
At the local level, some of our volunteers took on political corruption directly. They qualified through volunteer signature-gathering, then passed the nation's toughest conflict-of-interest laws in cities across California via a ballot measure to prevent pay-to-play politics. The reform prevented politicians from accepting gifts, jobs or money from anyone they had conferred a benefit on and was so tough that the supposedly progressive city of Santa Monica tried to roll back the law a few years ago via ballot measure. We stopped that effort and preserved the law. If such a volunteer signature-gathering effort could be replicated on the state level, it would open the door to sea-change reforms since it's very expensive to qualify a ballot measure.
Many of our successes in the initiative process in recent years have been stopping greedy industries from using the initiative process to roll back existing protections for the public. We were dragged into those fights to protect the public. In June 2010, we beat back a $16 million attempt by an insurance company to repeal a key provision of Proposition 103 that it has targeted for 22 years. We were outspent twelve to one, but helped voters see through the company's self-serving attempt to raise premiums.
You've taken on insurers, banks, oil companies, utilities and politicians and you've used some pretty unique tactics to get results - like purchasing the Social Security numbers of California reps to prove a point about privacy. Can you tell us about that? Why did you do it?
Financial privacy legislation had been stalled in a key committee by a group of corporate-friendly legislators who had received big campaign contributions from banks and refused to vote on the measure at all. They wouldn't vote no or yes; they just abstained. They didn't want to pay a price either with the public or the banking lobbyists, so they just didn't vote and "took a walk," as they call it in the capitol. Their failure to vote kept the bill locked up in committee.
The legislation - which required consumers to opt in before financial services companies shared their personal information with other companies - had huge public support, but the legislators just wouldn't move. I wanted to break the standstill and raise the stakes by exposing just how much of our personal information was for sale on the Internet for a relatively cheap price. I knew making it personal for the politicians would provoke them. So I easily and legally bought the Social Security numbers of all the state legislators who opposed the legislation or refused to vote on it. Then I put up their partial Social Security numbers on the Internet along with the partial Social Security number of Governor Gray Davis. The politicians went ballistic. They claimed I violated their privacy and called for the California Highway Patrol and Attorney General to investigate. The media ate it up. It proved our point. The politicians didn't care enough about their constituents to vote for privacy protections, but they wanted law enforcement to protect their own. The spotlight on the committee ultimately helped set the legislation free. What got the legislation signed into law, though, was the collection of 700,000 signatures to put a stronger privacy measure on Governor Davis's desk. Chris Larsen, the E-loan founder, who paid for the signature gathering, presented the legislature and industry with an ultimatum: pass legislation in a week or face a far tougher law at the ballot. They acquiesced.
Can you tell us about a few other radical moves you've made and the change they've prompted?
Stunts and props are a big part of our work. They can be a lot of fun and put a spotlight on issues. For example, in May, to highlight the fact that an insurance company CEO was funding the deceptive California Proposition 17 but hiding behind a phony coalition, we sent a man in a chicken suit to legislative hearings on the measure to draw attention to the CEO-in-hiding. I have burned insurance policies at politicians' offices, brought a red herring to legislative hearings to stop phony industry proposals, and delivered buckets full of manure to the offices of Congressional representatives, like Chris Cox, to reflect our lack confidence in their integrity.
My favorite stunt, though, is when we dumped a truck load of beans at an HMO industry conference to point out our opposition to HMO bean counters overriding doctors' decisions. It was part of a statewide tour to promote the right of doctors and patients to tell HMOs what care was medically necessary. The legislative package implementing the tough HMO-patients'-rights laws passed in 1998.
What do you think it will take to make progressives take the kind of direct action that Tea Party supporters have taken to get the change they want?
Mandatory health insurance purchases will kick in by 2014. That's like a ticking time bomb for progressives because it represents the worst of government - its coercive power to force purchases of insurance from a hated industry. Progressives and their leaders need to wake up and provide the public with concrete options and guarantees before then or this will be a GOP-controlled nation again. The state ballot measure process offers one hope for building and improving on federal reforms. And it gives progressives causes that they can rally around to advance the lot of average people. That's something the Tea Party doesn't have. It's a party of naysayers, not truth-sayers and reformers.
Left-leaning interest groups - like labor, environmentalists, trial lawyers, D.C. public interest types ñ are hesitant to take on the president that they elected publicly for fear of undermining his chances of reelection in 2012. They can turn out a lot more people and attention than the fledging Tea Party, but the liberal establishment refuses to expose and confront Obama about his failures. It's a crisis of will, not capacity. What they fail to see is that unless the president gets a healthy injection of populist fervor between now and 2012, he won't win reelection. He needs to deal with, or begin to deliver on, his promises from 2008, not simply toot his own horn and say it's the best Washington can deliver. That's the opposite of the talk that elected him and it will lead to GOP control of both houses and the White House if progressives don't get pissed off and demand better in the same way the Tea Party does.
Reasonable people will have to listen to their anger and their gut, then take to the streets and virtual town square online for support. The good news is that the vacuum created by the silence of the traditional liberal establishment leaves a huge opening for a creative individual to get a lot of traction with the perfect salvo at the right moment. Once public opinion continues to turn against Obama, angrier minds will prevail inside the progressive movement and Obama will have to join the drumbeat, rather than fight it. Democratic donors are already refusing to open their wallets unless candidates try to lessen the number of votes in the Senate it takes to overcome a filibuster. The honeymoon with Obama is at an end, and it will start to look like a divorce proceeding if failure in the midterm elections is significant enough. That's when Obama will have to turn towards progressives and independents to energize them, or risk giving up the keys to the White House.