Within a day or two of the Nov. 6 election, headlines about the effects of Proposition 30 appeared: community colleges adding classes to accommodate 20,000 more students; U.C. taking off the table a midyear, $2,400 tuition hike; parents and teachers relieved of an additional three-week public school furlough. California had backed away from its own fiscal cliff, with voters taxing themselves to further the common good.
By passing Prop. 30, the sales and income tax increase initiative, we averted new and devastating budget cuts that would have caused immediate suffering and increased inequality for years to come. Congress now faces the same question: Given that the top 2 percent have benefited from the economy while inequality has risen dramatically throughout the United States, Congress must allow the temporary tax cuts to sunset for these top income earners — those making more than $250,000 a year.
So given that polls in the final weeks showed support for Prop. 30 slipping badly, it’s worth asking just how and why the measure passed, especially considering what it was up against. Just 10 days before the election, after a barrage of negative and misleading ads funded by multimillion dollar donors, what accounts for its solid margin of victory?
Much credit has been given to Gov. Jerry Brown, who made a highly visible pitch in the final weeks of the campaign. The untold story is that Proposition 30’s margin of victory was delivered by Reclaim California’s Future, a coalition of grassroots, interfaith and labor organizations committed to restoring public safety, critical funding for schools and universities and essential services for seniors and the disabled, and to rebuilding the state’s crumbling roads, bridges and economy.
This coalition put together the largest community-led voter mobilization effort in the state’s recent history to reach more than 1.3 million new and unlikely voters. It was done with old-fashioned organizing and newfangled tools. The message was ground in deeply held American values. Christians, Muslims and Jews spoke as one, reaching out to congregations, clergy, friends and family. Residents of low-income neighborhoods were engaged. Union members and community activists volunteered thousands of hours. Reclaim California’s Future reached tens of thousands of new immigrants, communicating in their languages of origin. A strong social media campaign complemented the coalition’s direct get out the vote campaign.
The margin of victory for Proposition 30 — as much as 4 percent of the “yes” vote — can be attributed to the 1.37 million conversations coalition volunteers had with individual voters by phone or at their doors, voters who traditionally stay home on Election Day. It can be attributed to hundreds of thousands of likely voters engaged through email, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube.
One of the coalition participants, Bend the Arc, organizes with Jews in partnership with other communities. Although American Jews are not featured in most lists of disadvantaged populations, or unlikely voters, our volunteer leaders — young and old, secular and observant — know this is our fight, too. Many young adults of all educational and class backgrounds are saddled with debt, face unemployment and feel their futures are uncertain. Others of all ages depend directly on public services. Many of us recognize that we are personally affected by poverty, racism and inequity.
But even those who don’t feel personally or immediately affected recognize that focusing on interdependence and communal responsibility — as instructed by so many faith traditions — is the way to move away from the cliff. This is a very different ethos than the individualism that dominates the political culture. A rabbinic teaching on how to relate to one’s neighbors tells of a person who begins to drill a hole in the bottom of a boat, and when his fellow passengers complain, he responds that the hole he is drilling is only below his own seat. Following the divine path means recognizing interdependence and taking constructive action to ensure the well-being of the whole.
As California so often finds itself leading the nation, the passage of Proposition 30 is a bellwether, with hopeful implications for the country. Not only did this election free us from the stranglehold that reactive anti-tax ideology has had on our state; it heralds a future in which the electorate will reflect our diverse population.
Our democracy and our prospects really are stronger when we leave cynicism behind and engage in the unglamorous — but at times thrilling — work of phone banking, letter writing, door knocking and talking to our neighbors about the pressing issues facing our communities. Through the old-fashioned work of democracy, we can stop peering over the fiscal cliff, thereby restoring fairness and creating a vibrant future for all.
Susan Lubeck is Bay Area regional director of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, and a member of the Reclaim California’s Future Steering Committee.