Writing the Good Fight: Charles Price, Political Scientist

Charles Price cycles to campus on his bike. (photo KM)
Southern California in August of `65 was a literal hotbed, the riots in Watts a fiery rebuke to politics as usual. Charles Price had just gotten his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Southern California and was on his way to a teaching position at the opposite end of the state in Chico, although he hadn't yet seen the town. He stayed for thirty-three years, and will retire at the end of this semester after a prolific writing and a distinguished teacher career at CSU, Chico.

As Price learned, soon after arriving, the little town of Chico had unrest of its own. "It was a time of great controversy on campus. I stepped right into it," he said. "I remember one of the first few weeks we were here, we were invited to the chair of the Political Science Department's home—his name was Ben Franklin, by the way—and while we were there, he received several phone calls. The person wouldn't respond, just breathed into the phone. The Franklins had been hounded by the local John Birch Society because of comments they'd made about various topics. I immediately became aware of the community tension over Vietnam and patriotism and all sorts of things."

At that time, Price said, "The Political Science Department could fit into a telephone booth. We only had about six members, one of whom was a full-time administrator. In those years you really got to know faculty in other departments because we were so small and officed together. When I came, too, the class sizes tended to be smaller. Today, given the budget constraints, in our intro classes, we have huge three-and four-hundred-student sections. I was one in the department who fought against that trend, but it seems to be the wave of the future." It's a wave he fears will inundate the comfortable student/teacher relating that characterized his own experience at Cornell College in Iowa. "It's part of my roots." he said, "Cornell had small, liberal arts classes and professors you got to know and interact with. My undergraduate years had a profound impact on my decision to go into teaching."

Price began college as a business major, but soon realized that was not his area of interest and quickly shifted to what he enjoyed. "I became a history/political science major and decided that I wasn't going to worry about how much I earned, but was going to do what I wanted to do."

After Cornell, Price earned his master's at the University of Iowa and then moved to California. While taking classes for his doctorate at U.S.C., he taught high school for a few years and then was an assistant professor at California State College at San Luis Obispo. Chico had a department that closely suited his interests and background, so when he landed here, it was for good.

Right away he began to spend part of his time in Sacramento and focused on interest groups and lobbying. "I wanted to actually see and talk with the people in power, not just rely on what others had said. So I began to focus on state politics and California government."

In 1975, Price was asked by the editor of Western Political Quarterly to write an article on western politics. "What struck me at the time as the most interesting and unique political feature of the western states was the use of direct democracy—initiatives, referendums, and recalls—which were not used so much by the midwestern, eastern, or southern states. So I wrote the article, which was the first written on direct democracy in a number of years. In 1978, Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann struck gold with Proposition 13, and suddenly I was being called by people all over the state and the country asking, "What is this initiative process?" related Price.

Price was quoted in the New York Times, L.A. Times, and other newspapers. "I began to study the alternative law-making process in California." Because the California legislature has for the last forty years been controlled by the Democrats, most direct democracy in this state has thus far been practiced by conservatives, although liberals have pushed various environmental initiatives and such things as the tobacco tax. If the Republicans ever take over both houses, Price believes, this trend will reverse itself.

Of particular interest to Price currently are two initiatives on the June `98 ballot, which, he said, "will be especially difficult issues for Democrats." The bilingual education initiative proposed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Republican Ron K. Unz is one. If enacted, the so-called "English for the Children" initiative would do away with bilingual education and two-way immersion programs by mandating English-only provisions. Despite vigorous opposition by the California Teachers Association, it is popular with the majority of voters, including, Price claims, a surprising number of Latinos.

The "Campaign Reform Initiative," also on the June ballot, requires union leaders to get permission annually from members to use their dues for political campaigns. "In the one state where this has already been adopted," he pointed out, "the amount of money raised for campaigns, which tends to benefit Democrats, has been drastically reduced." Price stated that early polls have shown both initiatives are likely to pass.

Since his article on direct democracy so many years ago, Price has authored a long list of others on legislative practices, policies, and trends. One of the periodicals he most enjoys writing for is The California Journal. Describing it as a journal for "practitioners"—legislators and lobbyists rather than academics—Price said, "I've really had to learn how to get away from a stodgy, academic journal kind of writing and jazz it up." He has placed articles in several other journals as well, such as State Government News and National Civic Review.

What happens in California politics keenly interests people outside the country, as evidenced by Price's speaking engagements at the Universities in Geneva and in Nuremburg. He has also managed to co-author several books, including two textbooks on California government, keep pace with revisions for both, chair the California Assembly Fellowship Board, and consult with the Assembly Rules Committee. All this in addition to teaching ( California Senator Mike Thompson and former Assemblyman Stan Statham are both former students of his) and the occasional debate or panel discussion.

Presently, Price is working on two new articles, one on multiple measure committees, which he describes as a new development in politics. "For the first time in fifty years we don't have a clear picture of what's spent on individual initiatives." The other, on term limits, will involve interviewing several legislators whose terms are up for their analysis. Price supports "reasonable term limits." Prop. 140, on which he debated Bernie Richter in a 1990 KCHO "Public Forum," was, he says, "very extreme. It was punitive. It stipulated just six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate. That's too short. It's meant that, to a great extent, people are just shifting around in jobs. Either they run for higher office or they go into lobbying."

Of all the issues facing voters today, however, Charles Price thinks the most pressing is campaign finance reform. "I was a strong backer of Prop. 208," he said, "which was on the ballot November `96. It was not a panacea, but it was a good step in the right direction. The federal courts struck that down, so we're back to having no limits in state elections. I think a really disturbing trend in California politics is that quality people who don't have access to mega-millions can't really run for state elections. Or," he corrected, "they can run, but it'd be a joke." Citing Leon Panetta's withdrawal from the gubernatorial arena for being unable to raise two million dollars a week before the primary, Price stated, "Money's always been important, but I don't think we've ever had so many millionaires dominating the political process for statewide office. The notion of counting equally, that everyone should have an even chance, is being destroyed in this race for money."

No doubt Charles Price will remain concerned, and actively involved writing and speaking about, the democratic process following his retirement (he will continue to teach in the FERP program for the next five years), even as he has more time for his family and hobbies. He enjoys the symphony and local theater, also cross-country skiing and golf, and is known as a serious contender when it comes to tennis. Said the wife of one of his colleagues, "Charles Price can really WHACK that ball." If it's all the same to him, he'd probably just as soon whack out another insightful essay on California politics.


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