By Joe Tash
John Cox moved to Rancho Santa Fe from his native Chicago last year for the golf, tennis and great weather. But he’s also trying to put his stamp on California politics.
Cox, 56, bought a home in the Rancho Valencia resort, and gets out on the court and the links as much as possible. “It ain’t hard to figure out why I’m here,” said the attorney and CPA, who also controls a $150 million real estate portfolio and provides financial advice to wealthy clients.
When he’s not running his business, slamming tennis balls or swinging a golf club, he’s stumping for a statewide initiative that would remake the California Legislature. According to Cox, his plan, which he calls the “Neighborhood Legislature Reform Act,” is based on New Hampshire’s 400-member state legislature, and would take special interest money out of California politics.
So far, Cox said he has spent $100,000 of his own money on the effort, and is willing to spend another $200,000. The initiative has been filed with the California attorney general’s office and is qualified for signature gathering, the next stage in the process.
Cox’s plan would divide each of the existing 40 state Senate districts and 80 state Assembly districts into 100 “neighborhood districts.”
Under the initiative, Californians would elect 8,000 neighborhood assembly members and 4,000 neighborhood senators, who would in turn elect 80 assembly and 40 senate working group members. The working group would function similarly to existing Legislature.
Because neighborhood senators would represent only 10,000 constituents, and neighborhood assembly members would represent 5,000 residents, Cox said, they wouldn’t need to raise or spend a lot of campaign money to get elected.
“When you don’t have to raise campaign money, your motivations for getting into office are completely different,” Cox said. “You get people that aren’t bought by special interests.”
The working committees would introduce and debate bills, and the neighborhood legislators would vote up or down on bills before they could be sent to the governor. As drafted, the initiative would amend the state’s Constitution.
State Sen. Mark Wyland, R-Carlsbad, whose 38th District includes Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach, said Cox’s initiative has a “great goal.”
“It certainly would bring more accountability and bring government closer to the people, and that’s always good,” Wyland said, noting that he would have to study the proposed initiative more closely before deciding if he would support it.
But he said the state’s current rules for putting initiatives on the ballot create an ironic twist in the case of Cox’s proposal. Once an initiative is qualified for signature gathering, Wyland said, proponents have 180 days to gather the necessary signatures. And gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures over six months costs several million dollars, which generally requires special interest money.
Wyland said he plans to introduce a bill this month that would allow initiative supporters to take up to two years to gather the necessary signatures, which means they wouldn’t need to raise so much money to put a measure on the ballot.
“My goal is to make the initiative process what it’s intended to be, to allow people to get something into law they want and the Legislature has failed to do,” Wyland said.
Cox said he needs to gather 800,000 signatures by June 1, which he has been told will cost $2 million to $3 million, money he hopes to raise from donations.
So far, he has garnered support from leaders of such disparate organizations as the Tea Party Express and Common Cause.
The plan calls for neighborhood legislators to be paid $1,000 per year, while working group members would be paid $30,000. (Currently, legislators are paid $95,291 per year.) According to the state Legislative Analyst, California would save $180 million per year on legislative costs under Cox’s proposed initiative, but county election costs would rise “potentially in the range of tens of millions of dollars initially and lower amounts annually thereafter.”
Cox, however, said he doubts local election costs would be so high, because the neighborhood districts would be built from existing precincts.
Cox said he first got into politics in 2000 after establishing a successful business career, and ran for Congress and the U.S. Senate in the early 2000s, once debating health care and education policy with then-Sen. Barack Obama. He also ran for president as a Republican candidate in 2008.
He has four daughters and lives with his wife, Sarah, and youngest daughter in Rancho Santa Fe.
“I’m a voice in the wilderness, maybe,” he said, but insisted, “I’m no nut case.”
He believes the concept of his initiative could work in other states and even the U.S. Congress.
“If California can do this, I think it’ll sweep the country, it’ll be like a wild fire,” he said.
For more information on the initiative, visit www.rescuecalifornia.org