Andrew Winnick

“This stuff is really doable. It’s important to understand that…grassroots power is very real. It can work, but it takes organization, it takes energy, it takes follow through.”

Bio/Background

For many years, Golden State Water Company distributed water on the City of Claremont’s behalf. Unfortunately, corporate resource management proved fiscally inefficient and environmentally destructive. Amidst growing controversy over such issues, Andy Winnick—political activist, Cal State LA professor emeritus, and longtime Claremont resident—emerged as an important leader in the effort to bring water back under municipal control.

Identifying the Stakes

Claremont lacked the monetary ability to buy out its resource interests from Golden State Water. With high financial stakes on all sides, the disagreement made its way onto the local election ballot. Winnick explains,

“…the big issue came with the money, the cost of buying the water system. You are not going to buy a water company from current revenue. You are going to have to borrow money. You will have to float some sort of bond issue to borrow the money in order to make the purchase. And unlike a situation where you have a negotiated settlement, you don’t know what the price is going to be because it’s going to be determined by the courts, and you can’t go into court and do this unless you already know you have the money. So, the city…put on the ballot a measure to raise the money through borrowing to affect the purchase. At that point all hell broke loose. What really got things going was when Golden State decided to fight us. The best estimate we have is [that] they ultimately threw $1.2 million into the fight against us.

“What ended up happening was some local townspeople who are basically associated with the Tea Party movement essentially came out against it. We don’t know if they reached out to Golden State Water or if Golden State Water reached out to them, but they formed an organization totally funded by Golden State Water to fight it. The first thing they did was file paperwork to put a resolution on the ballot for a different bond issue simply designed to—people weren’t going to vote for both—maybe confuse them.”

Working through Small Groups, Making Big Impacts

Winnick knew from his past activism that a small but organized grassroots work could have outsize political consequences:

“I’ve done this sort of thing before, for example…when…[Eugene Joseph] McCarthy was running for president, and we—a politically left anti-war movement—were mounting an effort to take over the Democratic Party. There was a primary election campaign, and I took a group of seven people into a town called Wisconsin Dells, it’s a small town under 30,000 or 40,000 people, and never in its history had [it] ever voted Democratic for anything. We went into town and went to every door. We asked them how they felt about the war in Vietnam (the war was ongoing). If they were supportive of the war, we took note of it and ignored them after that. If they were strongly against the war, we asked if they were willing to help with the voting effort. If they said yes, we took their phone number and said we would get back to them around the time of the election. If they were undecided, you would take note of that and talk with them and give them material. After just two weekends, we compiled this information, sent
information to all of the people that seemed potentially sympathetic; they got one mailing from us.

“On the day before the election, we went to the people that said they were activists to help get people to the polls, and we took the town (won the election). And the Republican Party in that town, and the established Democratic Party, didn’t know what hit them. I don’t think they even knew we were in town doing the door-to-door work, and they were stunned. They were flabbergasted that this very archconservative city all of sudden voted for a Democrat, and a candidate against the Democratic Party establishment. And it took eight people all of two weekends. This stuff is really doable. It’s important to understand that…grassroots power is very real. It can work, but it takes organization, it takes energy, it takes follow through, the usual stuff that you probably know.”

Organizing Local Elections

Just as he had in Wisconsin, Winnick helped to organize a grassroots political alliance in Claremont:

“We carved the city into voting precincts. For every precinct you have a precinct captain. You organize a group of people in each precinct and you carve it up and then bought…voter lists: the same things[that] are used in regular political campaigns, that are a matter of public record. For every address in the city it shows you how they are registered, which elections they voted in, if they are married, and names of all of the voters in the household. What we did, which was typical of any door-to-door political campaign…[was to] go door-to-door and talk with people. What was a little bit different here was, normally, you only talk with people that vote regularly, because if they are not going to vote, why waste your time? And if you are running a political campaign, and you are a Democrat, you will talk with the Democrats and Independents, you probably won’t talk with the Republicans. They just aren’t going to vote for you. And you don’t want to stir them up and get them agitated about voting anyhow, so you ignore them. But this was totally different.

“[So] I organized my precinct, and I had four to five people walking in my precinct, and I walked in my precinct myself, and it was very interesting. I talked with virtually every person, and I had a couple of people that were opposed to it, but 90% of the people I talked with were willing to talk, had heard something about the issue, but were very confused, and that’s a very important part of this process.”

Working Past Partisan Politics

Thanks to Winnick’s work, Claremont’s campaign to control the local water supply gained bipartisan support:

“The [Claremont] City Council is split three to two, Democrat to Republican…But what was amazing was that all of them—after being talked to—were willing to agree with the premise that this is really a matter of local control. That was the common unifying theme. We tried to avoid any hint of partisan politics. This was a question of the best interests of the people. It was necessary to gain public control. The water rates were high. They were going to corporate profits and high salaries.

“That made a big difference. We talked with people much more broadly than you usually do in a door-to-door campaign…I knocked on my conservative neighbors’ door, and we discussed the measure. Both said they were active members in the Tea Party, and they were both supportive, willing to listen to the arguments. What really attracted them was—they were both libertarian—the aspect of local control. They are against anything ‘big government,’ but this is local government. The non-partisan and the local control nature [of this campaign] made a difference. The Republican and Democratic members of the City Council actually went out together in pairs to go do door-to-door work, and this shocked people. When is the last time in the last 10 years you saw Democrats and Republicans working publicly together? It was a rare thing.”

Spreading the Word

Winnick believes that local print media and advocacy groups also played critical roles in raising public awareness about the politics of water distribution.

“If you can get a local paper involved…you can get, in essence, a free forum of information flow that you don’t pay for. That’s really a valuable way to get information out. We didn’t attempt to do any sort of radio or television thing, we didn’t have the money for it…[In contrast, Golden State Water] put maybe 20 mailers in everybody’s mailboxes. Very slick, heavy paper, glossy. They hired professional PR companies and people were getting extensive mailers in their mailbox regularly…[But] I think those we did put out sounded more reasonable, more rational, and people began to really see through the arguments that Golden State Water and these conservatives were making.”

“So basically, the process was three things: door-to-door campaigning, the newspaper debate, and meeting with organizations. We went to various community organizations and they were at least willing to listen to the debate.

“And that’s it. In essence that worked.”