'One-man legislature' takes on the politicians - and wins

Across a steamy-hot parking lot, behind a Glidden paint store, next to a building-supplies dealer, in a tidy prefab structure with a metal roof, is the nation's leading bastion of pure, straight-to-the-voters democracy.

Here Paul Gann - a soft-spoken former car and real-estate salesman, public relations man, and longtime scourge of California's political establishment - has steered four sweeping initiatives into state law in the past six years.

His record of success is unrivaled, even in face of a steadily rising swell of ballot initiatives around the country.

''A one-man legislature'' is how Sue Thomas, executive director of the National Center for Initiative Review, describes him - ''the most notable (state) legislator we have in the country.''

This, when in fact Mr. Gann has never been elected to any public office, but works entirely outside the California Legislature. His role is that of the ordinary taxpaying citizen, the little guy, who has had enough of big government apparently beyond his control.

These days, Gann's initiatives are aimed more and more directly at California politicians. His latest drive, launched last week, aims to return state lawmakers to part-time schedules, as in the days before the Legislature was professionalized in 1966.

Gann is an amiable, talkative great-grandfather who grew up poor, one of 12 children of a missionary preacher in Arkansas. He is an unpolished, unpretentious conservative of a traditional, populist stripe who has a knack for tapping into middle-class frustration with politics and politicians.

He became famous in 1978, when he and another conservative populist, Howard Jarvis, launched California's Proposition 13, a homeowners' revolt against property taxes. It was a jolt felt across the United States. Three years later, 30 states had passed laws limiting property taxes.

Gann followed this victory with the ''spirit of 13,'' a proposition that tied state spending to the cost of living and population growth. It passed by whopping margins.

In 1980, Gann won the Republican nomination for Alan Cranston's US Senate seat. Senator Cranston defeated him, so Gann has kept on rattling political cages from the outside.

He has not slowed down. Two years later, Gann caught hold of public impatience with crime and the courts to pass what he christened ''the victim's Bill of Rights,'' the nation's most sweeping get-tough-on-crime measure.

Now this year, Gann has made a successful venture into more arcane territory. Proposition 24 rewrites the house rules in the Democrat-controlled California Legislature, drastically cutting the budget for staff and expenses, and curtailing the power of the majority party, especially the Speaker of the Assembly.

Prop. 24 has been Gann's most direct blow to the purview of statehouse leaders. It has pitted him in a tooth-and-nail scrap with Speaker Willie Brown and other powerful Democrats to make Prop. 24 stick.

Gann had planned to put all other projects aside until he sees Prop. 24 put into effect or until the state courts declare it unconstitutional. Although the measure is now state law, the Legislature is not complying (except to partially cut its budget) until the courts rule.

Instead he has let fly another haymaker, launching his new initiative to return California to a part-time legislature, limiting legislative careers to eight years. He has done it partly out of his frustration with the legislators over their refusal to comply with Prop. 24.

''I've let this get under my skin, and I don't usually do that,'' Gann says. ''But I'm trying to overcome that and get back to my way of doing business.''

''They tried to paint me an extremist,'' he says of the opponents to Proposition 24. ''I'm not an extremist.'' He was also accused in that campaign of racism. (Assembly Speaker Brown is black.) ''That stuff's phony.''

Of all the tags Gann is pegged with, ''antigovernment'' is one that particularly chafes. He sees himself as a ''constitutionalist'' and a true believer in the American system. ''I've never done anything I didn't go first to the legislators with.''

When the legislators abuse their power, he says, ''the constitution of California says all - not part, all - political power is vested in the people.'' Hence the voter referendums Gann has used so successfully to override the lawmakers.

The themes in Paul Gann's conversation - apart from the abuses of politicians - are the apple-pie themes of freedom, family, and the dignity of self-reliance. His favorite slogan is: ''Freedom isn't free, and with it comes personal responsibility.'' This translates, for Gann, into fiscal conservatism - the need for both government and people to balance their accounts.

So a major Gann project is to win over the remaining states needed to call a constitutional convention for writing a balanced national budget into the nation's charter. Gann speculates that the balanced-budget forces may even win over the 34 states necessary this year, including California.

''I fear the national debt worse than I fear the Russians,'' he says. ''The national debt will destroy us.''

And underlying the debt, Gann sees a troubling attitude abroad in the land, a freedom-threatening attitude, that personal, family responsibilities can be left at the door of the government.

''Don't get me wrong,'' he says. ''When people need help, I think they should be helped, and helped with dignity.'' But government help has become too easy, in Gann's opinion.

He tells of his own daughter's child, whose father ''didn't want the responsibility of a family.'' The Ganns took daughter and granddaughter in, helped care for the child, later ferrying her to school and back, while the mother worked at a bank.

''We didn't call the government, or somebody down the street. It was our responsibility, because we were raised to believe it was our responsibility.''

By contrast, he views a proposed state day-care center for state employees here as a usurping of family responsibility.

Gann's company, People's Advocate Inc., is sought out almost daily by people with initiatives they want Gann to back in states around the country. After his drive to make the Legislature part-time work, he plans one more statewide initiative issue before devoting his energies to national matters, such as the balanced-budget amendment and a proposal that English become the national language.

Of this last statewide issue, Gann will say only that it has national implications. To discuss it further, he says, would give his opposition a jump start.

People's Advocate is a membership organization with no ties to any politician or corporation, Gann says. ''We're free to help any cause we believe in, and if we don't believe in your cause, we'll try to jump in your hip pocket and weigh you down.''

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