Proponents of a statewide ballot measure calling for a rewrite of how California governs itself say they are under attack from the lucrative signature-gathering industry.
Repair California, the Bay Area-based business group behind two initiatives that would convene a Constitutional Convention, has accused five firms of blacklisting their petitions, shouting down their volunteers, destroying valid signatures and intentionally submitting fake signatures.
"We have had hundreds of reports from all over the state," said Repair California spokesman John Grubb. "I even received a death threat."
In response to the hostilities, Grubb said they have hired their own signature-gatherers.
In the meantime, Repair California has sent cease-and-desist letters to major firms, including American Petition Consultants, National Petition Management and Kimball Petition Management. Grubb said they have also prepared a lawsuit alleging violations of free speech and antitrust laws.
The companies declined to comment or did not return phone calls.
But The Economist magazine quoted Fred Kimball, owner of Kimball Petition Management, in its online edition, saying he opposed the Constitutional Convention measures and was blacklisting signature-gatherers who carried those petitions. Most are contract workers who carry multiple petitions.
The industry leaders fear a Constitutional Convention could result in reforms or the elimination of the initiative process that would hurt their business.
Repair California's two measures do not spell out specific changes but legislators and policy groups have suggested reforms that would make it easier for proponents to use volunteer signature-gatherers or limit the numbers of measures allowed on a given ballot.
"This is the first time I have heard of the petition firms taking a position on an initiative in this way," said Bob Stern, whose public policy group, Center for Governmental Studies, has written extensively on initiative reform. "These firms typically won't circulate two competing measures, which makes sense, but they rarely turn down business."
Others speculate that special interests such as labor unions and political parties, who worry they could lose political clout under reforms, are quietly fueling efforts to keep the Constitutional Convention measures off the ballot.
Repair California's initiatives are among the 74 measures cleared at the Secretary of State office for the signature-gathering process.
Constitutional Convention advocates have until May 21 to collect 433,971 valid signatures of registered voters in order to qualify for the November ballot.
Advocates bill the 98-year-old initiative process as an invaluable means under which ordinary citizens can bypass misguided elected officials and write their own laws.
In polls, a majority of Californians agree the initiative system may need a face-lift but remain firmly behind the concept.
What voters may not realize is that the sheer size of California, coupled with the large number of signatures required and tight submission deadlines, all but forces statewide initiative backers to pay millions of dollars for those signatures.
Typically, paid signature-gatherers are independent contractors. They turn in completed petitions to a signature management firm in exchange for payments that range from 50 cents a signature up to $1 or more.
In metro areas such as the Bay Area and Los Angeles, regional coordinators often act as liaisons between the contractors and the large companies.
The front-line folks who eke out a paycheck gathering signatures, the ones who sit behind tables on college campuses or stand outside the doors to shopping centers, rarely know or care about the contents of the petitions.
The more petitions they carry, the more money they make.
A regional coordinator, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said he and dozens of signature-gatherers have been blackballed because they circulated the convention measures.
"This is clearly a proactive campaign to dissuade people in the industry from carrying the convention measures," he said.
Privately, however, others in the industry say Repair California may lack the funds to hire a professional signature-gathering firm and is trying to do the job on the cheap.
The Bay Area Council formed Repair California last year, pledged $2 million to the initiative campaign and hired political consultant Clinton Reilly to run it.
As of Dec. 31, the close of the last campaign finance report period, the committee reported contributions of $352,000. It had spent $350,000 and owed another $214,000.
Its biggest donors were Bay Area Council Chairman Lenny Mendonca and the Sacramento-based California Tribal Business Alliance; each contributed $150,000.
"We are doing just fine," countered Grubb. "We are right where we expected to be, and we are not worried about fundraising."