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Published: Sunday, 8/10/2003

Signature biz can be lucrative

Not too many years ago, I had a friend named Paul who, as near as I could tell, wasn't the most ambitious guy in the world.

But he loved politics.

He would call and talk about this or that arcane detail about this or that campaign, wowing me with his grasp of the insignificant. He made his living off politics - not in politics, but off of it - as one of those paid petition circulators who gather signatures to help qualify ballot measures for elections.

This was more than a decade ago and a world away in the state of Oregon, where it is relatively easy to qualify a measure for the ballot and where circulators can work pretty much year-round.

Paul would take up positions outside local post offices, getting several signatures at a time. On any given day, initiative petitions could be found floating around the state, and he would identify five, six, seven, or sometimes even more that would appeal to voters of the same mindset - conservative or liberal causes, it didn't really matter. He would ask voters to sign all these petitions one right after the other, which many people were inclined to do.

What most signers probably didn't know was that he would typically make $1 or $2 per signature, so one person signing seven petitions could be worth $14. On a slow day when, say, he would manage just a couple dozen signers, his take could approach $300.

There were - and still are - plenty of special interests or industries wanting to buy their own amendment to Oregon state law, and Paul was always willing to sell it to them, one signature at a time.

He did OK for himself, and he was not alone. An entire industry has cropped up in Oregon and, of course, in California, which has similar laws on the subject, and where voters are now preparing for the ultimate ballot issue - the recall of a sitting governor.

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Such political systems breed a different culture than here in the Midwest. Out there, the ballot issues are almost always much more interesting than the politicians. Here in Toledo, personalities dominate. Just think of the names:

Finkbeiner.

Isenberg.

Thurber.

Ford.

Of these individuals everyone has an opinion.

But the recent rise of issue politics in Lucas County - it may be just an aberration - is refreshing to this westerner. Consider the current landscape:

  • Issue 1, the Toledo Public Schools levy, is center stage after a defeat last week at the hands of political guerrilla warriors. District officials have indicated we will be seeing another levy request on the November ballot.

  • Sylvania voters face the prospect of a citywide referendum over the disposition of the Lathrop House, generally considered to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. Voters there in November may be asked to decide whether it should be restored where it stands, be moved to a new location before restoration, or demolished. Sylvania city council there has rejected a petition signed by thousands of residents to let the owner of the house - St. Joseph Catholic Church - determine what to do with it.

  • Hot on the heels of the passage of a comprehensive smoking ban in most Toledo establishments where the public congregates, bar owners are mounting an energetic effort to force voters to decide whether the ban should stand or be repealed.

    Their petition to force a citywide vote on the matter is expected to be turned in to the Lucas County Board of Elections today. Backers of the repeal say they think they have enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

    The rise of issue politics in Lucas County appears to be a reflection of grass-roots frustration with political leadership. People seem unwilling to sit idly by and let stand the controversial decisions made by elected bodies.

    Assuming nothing derails them on the way to the ballot, these issues will get lots of attention over the next three months, and they will likely be a powerful cure to voter apathy this November.

    Along the way, local elected officials whose decisions may be revisited by voters may be in for a lesson of humility that is taught every year on the West coast - that those who elected them in the first place are still the ones in charge.

    Just ask Gray Davis.

    Paul wouldn't have it any other way. And while there's not enough business for him to make a living here, I have to believe he would be pleased with the turn of events.



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