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California's New Boot Camp for Ballot Initiatives

The Oaks Project wants to help people take a leading role in American politics.

During the midday rush outside Ralph's supermarket, David Potorti leans forward on one foot toward scurrying passersby: "Twenty seconds of your time, sir, that's all I need."

With both June and November elections bearing down, Mr. Potorti is collecting signatures for a ballot initiative. But he's not like most signature sweepers. A ribbon dangling from his jacket proclaims: "I'm not paid to collect your signature."

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Instead, he's is a part of The Oaks Project, an organization that is trying to help Americans become political leaders by teaching them more about the democratic process and giving them the tools to start their own initiatives. For two hours every month, Oaks members receive training from seasoned activists on how to fund-raise, recruit supporters, deal with the media, and put issues on the ballot.

In return for this expertise, members must raise $1,000 a year for the project and complete 15 hours of volunteer service a month. This can be time spent holding a neighborhood discussion on how to use the Freedom of Information Act, talking to high schoolers about registering to vote, or - as Potorti is doing on this day - collecting signatures for ballots that either the member or the Oaks support.

Call for volunteers

The project is looking for 1,000 volunteers across California in an effort to get people who feel disenfranchised by the two-party, big-money system back into politics - and to help them make their voices heard.

"I was feeling a little angry, frustrated, and depressed that the world was a little out of control and that the average person was pretty much irrelevant," says Potorti, a TV producer.

He first heard about the Oaks a year ago, when he saw an advertisement in a magazine for a "dynamic new citizens' organization" headed by long-established consumer activist Ralph Nader. After attending a meeting, "I felt instantly better - that this was a solution to how I and others around me were feeling," he adds.

For many people like Potorti, this feeling of unease has grown as more and more money has made its way into politics during the past few decades, leading them to worry that the individual citizen's voice has been stifled.

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But the Oaks is aimed at teaching its members how to cope with these issues. "[It] is attempting to permanently develop an ongoing grass-roots institution to deal with the systemic shortcomings of democracy," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "That's never been done."

A major focus of The Oaks Project in California is the initiative process itself. The process was introduced 90 years ago as a way for citizens to initiate legislation that their legislators can't or won't. But in recent years, critics have claimed that it has been co-opted by large corporations or wealthy individuals - the only ones with enough financial backing to bankroll the expensive proposition of getting 433,000 signatures to qualify.

Citizens' activists have been outmaneuvered and outspent by wealthy corporations for years, says Jim Shultz, executive director of The Democracy Center and author of "The Initiative Cookbook," a book on California's ballot wars. "It's part of why politics here has become so cynical.... The Oaks Project is giving us the hope that there is enough idealism left to keep the idea of participatory democracy alive."

Getting involved

Indeed, Oaks members become strong advocates for the initiatives they choose to back. For the November ballot, Potorti is collecting signatures for a measure retracting parts of a utility-deregulation bill he feels was sneaked through the state legislature in 1996.

To do so, he is spending free time on Saturdays, as well as noon lunch hours, standing at places like Ralph's or knocking on doors.

"I was very daunted at first with the prospect of engaging people," says Potorti, who adds that he has had to develop people skills as well as understand issues and procedures more thoroughly. "But I am finding people are congratulating me and thanking me for doing this."

With chapters in five California cities, The Oaks Project seeks to establish itself in California before branching out into other states, organizers say. With small, paid staffs of about three or four in different cities, the project has backing from thousands of small donors mostly found by Oaks volunteers themselves.

A one-night blitz of fund-raising dinners statewide in November netted $80,000 in contributions. "When our trained volunteers put their heads together, they can raise some serious cash," says Oaks spokesman Bill Gallagher.

Although the goal of 1,000 participating Oaks volunteers sounds small to some, organizers stress the idea is to plant seeds of activism that will sprout everywhere. Like Potorti, nearly all are trained professionals with full-time jobs in other fields.

"We are not teaching Oaks [members] just how to be activists themselves," says spokesman Doug Heller. "We are teaching them how to empower others so that this thing can grow exponentially."

Some observers say that may be an uphill battle. "It is very hard to build a movement around the principle of participation rather than a specific policy issue," says the Democracy Center's Jim Shultz. "But it's possible that in taking on both issues and trying to leave the machinery of participation in place, the Oaks will become a model for others to follow."

For Potorti, success has already been achieved. "I have a new confidence about myself and democracy that I didn't have before," he says. "I'm starting to care a little more about what the world is going to look like and that I can have some influence in making it better."

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