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It Takes Initiative

Robert Scheer

Sign of the Times: Canvasser Steve Stoddard explains initiatives to local resident Rachel Farley. Unlike most of his peers, Stoddard reads his papers.

With pluck, petition-pushers can score some big-time bucks

By Kelly Luker

Ever wonder about the folks who stop you in your tracks with: "Registered to vote in California?" Oh, yes, you know what's coming--an opportunity to save the whale, legalize marijuana, designate the rutabaga as State Vegetable--their list of causes is endless. They might be annoying, but they work hard for their money. And the money ain't bad at all--if you're a good hustler.

On a nice day this time of year, citizens can figure on dodging at least a half-dozen signature-gatherers along Pacific Avenue, at the Capitola Kmart or any of several dozen grocery stores. Some petition-bearers carry as many as eight clipboards of initiatives at a time.

Hank has staked out the corner of Lincoln and Pacific and is juggling two initiatives at the moment. Because Hank has explained their purposes about 2,000 times by now, they emerge as a blur: "StopHMO'sfromtelling doctorshowtoparcticemedicine" or "Stopconartistsfromstealing people'sretirementfunds."

Down the block, Adam is pushing competitive bidding, legalizing marijuana and gambling in Palm Springs, in no particular order. Depending on the initiative, he'll get from 45 cents to a buck for each signature. On a good weekend, he'll pull in 50 bucks--an hour.

But the title of Grand Old Man may well rest with Steve Stoddard, a familiar sight on the mall with his rickshaw-style straw hat. Stoddard has been doing this intermittently throughout the state since 1989. He usually holds court across from the UA theaters, "one of the two best spots on the mall." Turf ownership is decided in that most old-fashioned of ways--whoever stakes it out first.

Right now, Stoddard is explaining the background of the Stop HMOs initiative to an attentive couple. He is patient with their questions, never letting them know that their dawdling is costing him valuable signatures. "It's annoying when people pick apart the initiative," he later admits. His bread-and-butter are those who hear his spiel, then grab the offered pen. As he covers each point, the woman looks questioningly at her man, waiting for his reaction before offering hers.

After a stint in the Marine Corps, Stoddard returned to college, where he discovered a taste for political activism. He was one of the organizers of Voter Revolt, a consumer group that uses the initiative system, "until it turned mercenary," he says. He now attends Cabrillo College on and off, working his petitioning schedule around his art and music classes.

Stoddard will warn you that although many of his fellow petition peddlers are also politically committed, just as many have little idea what the initiative is about, and, furthermore, they don't much care. "Three or four circulators downtown here have been doing it a while and they're pretty ethical," he says. "You'll also get people lying their butts off. But in Santa Cruz they'll get called on it."

Yet the lure of flexible hours and potentially good money brings a fair amount of hired guns into the game. "But most don't last a week," Stoddard says. "You have to be able to take an enormous amount of rejection. You have to be able to put up what I call a 'happy shield.' "

But by this time of the year, when most initiatives are nearing their deadlines for getting on the fall ballot, Stoddard's happy shield has pretty much shrunk to a happy badge and gets more transparent all the time. "In the beginning of the season, I can maintain it for about five to six hours," Stoddard says. "By the end, I can take about three or four hours, then I gotta go home and work in my garden."

Stoddard notes that many passersby are shocked that initiative circulators are not volunteers. His response to them? "Do you volunteer at your work?"

The petitioner has proffered clipboards from Sacramento to Orange County, and has made a few observations about people based on what neck of the woods they hail from. "They're nicer here," Stoddard says. "However, this being Santa Cruz, some people will come up with the most whacked-out theories."

And war stories? His favorite is the time he was trying to get signatures outside of a Kmart in Orange County. Dressed nicely and holding a clipboard, Stoddard resembled a sales clerk to some confused teens. When they asked how much for one of the plastic pools for sale outside, he jokingly replied it was free. Before he could tell them he was only kidding, they tossed it in the back of their truck and took off.

"When it's overcast, people will sign less," he says. He doesn't waste his breath with people dressed all in black--a definite rejection. But he has been doing this long enough to know who his most likely clients will be: "Women between 25 and 65 in sensible shoes with sensible haircuts--those are the ones to sign petitions.

"When a new petition comes about, about 30 percent of the people will stop to check it out," Stoddard says. Of course, it helps that he's become a town fixture. "I've had a lot of people tell me that they'll only sign with me because I know what I'm talking about. When a new petition comes out, a lot of people will check it out, because they know me," he adds.

Your signature is money in the bank for him, but he offers a word of caution to those quick to whip out the pen: "Find out who's backing the initiative and find out who's funding it."

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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