Playing to vote: Signature gatherers hit streets, hope to stop new Kings arena

by Cosmo Garvin,

It’s not everybody’s idea of a good time, sitting out in front of the Kmart on Stockton Boulevard as the temperature heads toward 104. But Early Walker seemed cheerful enough trying to get shoppers to sign his petition.

A young woman walked by, smiling but turning Walker down, “No, I’m for the arena.”

“So far, a lot of people have told me they want the arena, and they won’t sign it,” Walker said. He’s one of a small force of paid signature gatherers who took to the streets last week to gather support for a ballot measure on Sacramento’s proposed publicly subsidized basketball arena. If the signature drive is successful, it would put a ballot measure before voters that, if passed, would require voters to approve any plan for the city of Sacramento to spend public money on a new facility for the Kings or any other pro-sports team.

Everybody here wants the arena,” Walker said, though he added many have reservations about using general-fund money to build it. He said his efforts were more complicated on this particular day because, of all things, the U.S. Supreme Court had just dealt the final blow to California’s Proposition 8 the day before. “Some people don’t want to sign any petition. They don’t believe in the voting process anymore.”

“Really?” Bites asked. “Weird.”

Walker pitched another Kmart shopper. “I don’t vote!” she snarled, not stopping.

Walker is a veteran signature gatherer. He’s worked in Washington state, Michigan and all around California. The heat, the drab storefront, the trickle of shoppers. Bites asked why he didn’t head for a friendlier spot, or at least one with more foot-traffic. He said that Kmart is actually a pretty good spot for a city-only measure. At the Walmart, for example, too many people live outside the city limits or don’t know. Also, “The validity here is good.” He means the signatures collected here are more likely to be found valid by elections officials when they are turned in. He thinks it’s because the shoppers here tend to be a little older.

In fact, the next person to approach is a grandmotherly type, who heads straight for Walker's table on her way out of the store and signs efficiently. He’d waved to her earlier, as she was hurrying in, “Maybe on the way out?”

At that point, Walker said he’d gathered 16 signatures in the last half-hour. Asked if he thought the petitioners would gather enough valid signatures for the arena measure to reach the ballot—about 35,000—Walker replied, “Oh, we always get enough signatures.”


For a bunch of different reasons, the folks for this ballot measure—Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork—have been written off as a ragtag group of amateurs, who lack the organization or the juice to stop the arena juggernaut.

Bites doesn’t entirely disagree. It’s clear who has the money in this fight. If it is a fight. Thanks to a cash infusion from a conservative Southern California PAC, there is now about $100,000 to hire people like Walker. Organizers are cagey about just how many signatures have been gathered as of last week, saying only that it was in the “thousands.” That could be 2,000 or 10,000 or more. Either way, they’ve got nearly six more months to get the rest.

And they’ve hired a couple professional political consultants. Republican strategist Tab Berg has worked on state and local campaigns around California, and has been very critical of the various arena subsidies that have come forward over the last year. He’s joined by Democrat Cory Black of Public Policy Solutions Inc., who has handled candidates like Ami Bera and Dave Jones.

Certainly if STOP succeeds in qualifying for the ballot, the whales will be merciless, beating us over the head with a big-money pro-arena public-relations campaign like this town has never seen. Bites looks forward to the mixed messaging: “Support the arena, vote no!” Or, on the other side, “Vote yes if you believe in public approval for arenas!”

And what of the deep pockets on the opposition’s side? Bites is wondering the same thing you are about that Southern California political action committee. Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods it’s called, based in Orange County. The same Orange County that nearly got themselves an NBA team called the Anaheim Royals a while back.

Aren’t the local folks trying to stop public giveaways to the billionaire Kings owners also inadvertently doing the dirty work of some other billionaire would-be Kings (or Royals or Sonics) owners in another town?

Maybe. One could argue that at least the billionaires will be somebody else’s problem. Still, many, many signatures to go before we worry about that.

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