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For the week of August 18th, 1999 through August 24th, 1999

Grassroots politics: different approaches for different folks

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

Consider contrasts in grassroots America in action: In Iowa, nearly 25,000 voters showed up Saturday for the Republican straw poll, most openly selling their votes to candidates for $25 a head, plus free vittles, free music and free bus transportation for the asking.

In the Wood River Valley at the same time, concerned citizens seeking no pay and no entertainment turned out with petitions- asking hikers at trailheads to protest the recreation area user fee, while neighbors in the lower Warm Springs area passed around petitions asking the city to repair the rickety Warm Springs Bridge and not abandon it.

GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain had it right when he called the Iowa spectacle a "sham"—voters selling their votes in a carnival setting.

Iowa's straw poll was another brazen example of the cynical corruption of politics—voters willing to sell their independence for free food and being regaled by celebrity performers.

Citizenship and civic responsibility are taking a beating. Voter registration is drastically down and voter turnout on Election Day is worse. And one of the fastest growing industries in politics is the pro petitioner, who's paid per-signature and replaces neighbors who once plodded door-to-door enlisting support for a cause.

Of many working the trailheads Saturday, Ketchum artist Will Caldwell certainly could've been other than at Adams Gulch with petitions. But he not only feels the fee is double-taxation, but working to overturn it is a moral responsibility.

Ditto for the impulses of Trish Williams, Karen McCall, Margot Van Horn and Meg Dolan, among others, working their Warm Springs neighborhood asking neighbors to persuade the city to spare the old bridge by repairing it.

Although civic responsibility still drives some among us, too many of today's decisions affecting lives and fortunes are influenced by interests whose objective is power, rather than civic betterment.

Who, ask yourself, has the best chance of chewing the fat privately with senators and congressman —lobbyists who give generously to the congressman's campaign coffers, or hometown folks just passing through Washington who want to protest or support legislation?

In Idaho, the ability of voters to place a grassroots referendum on the ballot to bypass state lawmakers has been made almost impossible by the Legislature, which changed rules of the game and increased requirements for referenda.

No surprise in that: Republicans holding political power in Boise and their special interest patrons want to limit the power of voters to initiate laws or overturn bad ones.

Perhaps the same citizens who give up weekends for causes must go to court and challenge those new legislative obstacles, or even launch a statewide drive to change the Legislature's heavy-handed efforts at throttling the public's voice.

The only way to keep the flames of grassroots democracy from being completely snuffed out by the cold winds of political arrogance is for selfless citizens to take on those who'd rather rule than serve.

Murphy is the retired publisher of the Arizona Republic and a former radio commentator


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