The charged-up crowd of baby-faced 20-somethings, gray-haired activists and a few parents comes marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles and into the tree-lined plaza next to City Hall on a bright Sunday afternoon. Drums banging, fists flying, people chant, “No on 23!” Actress Ellen Page (Juno) even shows up to throw in her two cents on why Proposition 23 should be defeated, standing solemnly at a podium and telling people that it's “absolutely illogical to not have a sustainable future, and the politicians know that.”
Gabe Elsner, a 23-year-old activist who gets little pay and only five or six hours of sleep each night as he works seven days a week to defeat the November ballot measure, smiles at the turnout. Liza Heavener, his 24-year-old girlfriend, who once worked for a U.S. senator, is a little more skeptical.
“It's great to bring people into this rally,” she says, “but I wonder how it translates to getting change done. We've seen how isolated lawmakers are, and what I see that speaks is money.”
Elsner, the intense, good-natured campaign director for the California Student Sustainability Coalition, suddenly gets serious. “If it gets big enough and loud enough,” he says of the effort to stop the measure, which would place a years-long hold on California's greenhouse gas–reduction law, “then [we] can trump the money.”
In fact, that's something he's betting on.
Through social media, face-to-face networking and pavement pounding, Elsner leads a key grassroots effort to reach California's nearly 3 million college students and persuade as many as possible to vote against Proposition 23 on Nov. 2.
Largely funded by major oil corporations such as Tesoro, Valero and the agricultural-energy giant Koch Industries, Proposition 23 would suspend California's strict greenhouse gas–reduction standards until the state's unemployment rate falls to 5.5 percent or lower for four straight quarters. Unemployment now stands at 12.4 percent and, since 1980, it has rarely stayed below 5.5 percent for a full year.
Organized opponents of Proposition 23, including environmentalists, labor unions and “clean tech” companies, say the measure would deal a big setback to anti-warming efforts and the state's burgeoning but still tiny “clean energy” economy: 500,000 future green jobs jeopardized and per-person energy costs boosted by $650 a year, thanks to our addiction to oil.
“I hate them,” Elsner says of Charles and David Koch, the outspoken libertarian brothers who run Kansas-based Koch Industries. The Kochs, who are worth about $35 billion, have helped fund the Tea Party and have given $1 million in support of Proposition 23. “They do not care about my generation. They do not care about the environment. They're only about themselves. They fire me up. They get me angry.”
In a war over statistics, however, the “Yes on 23” campaign counters that 1.1 million jobs will be wiped out by the restrictions approved under Assembly Bill 32, the state's climate-change law, further damaging California's wounded economy. And, the campaign charges, Californians will endure years of higher electricity rates and gas prices.
But Big Green has poured huge sums into defeating Big Oil, with environmental groups and their friends surprising many by outspending the Kochs, Valero and the rest.
Maplight.org, a political-contribution tracking site, reports that Big Green is outspending Big Oil by a staggering 3-to-1, and even traditional utility PG&E gave $500,000 to “No on 23,” positioning itself on the side with the momentum. Ultra-rich asset manager Thomas Steyer, who funded the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy at Stanford University, poured in more than $5 million, making the $2.1 million given by legendary Silicon Valley couple John and Ann Doerr seem modest. A key nonpartisan poll shows the measure now badly trailing, 48 percent to 37 percent, with a large bloc of voters on the fence.
The question comes down to something startlingly simple: What do worried California voters, fearful over a sagging economy, see as best for their personal futures: traditional industry, or clean-energy firms?
“Proposition 23 will pass only if voters believe that [the greenhouse gas–reduction] law will hurt job growth,” says Tony Quinn, a Sacramento political consultant whose California Target Book closely tracks the state's races. “Voters generally ask of themselves with these kinds of ballot measures, 'What's in it for me?' ”
Into this war between monied adults — also on the “No” side, Bill Gates gave $700,000, James Cameron gave $1 million, and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla gave $1.04 million — steps the most under-employed, and unemployed, generation of young Californians in decades. They were widely praised — and highly criticized in some circles — for surging to the polls to help put Barack Obama in the White House.
Proposition 23 is a high-profile test of whether they will continue what they started — prodded by young leaders like Elsner and a single ballot measure affecting jobs, environmental issues and Big Oil.
Helped by a surge in interest thanks to Proposition 19, the measure to legalize marijuana, the California Student Sustainability Coalition and the group Student Vote have set Elsner's goal at registering 60,000 college students in California. Together, they plan to make 160,000 student-voter contacts before Election Day.
Naomi Seligman, a 30-ish Santa Monica– based media consultant for progressive causes, says her pre-Obama college-era movement “was sort of unicorns and rainbows” — taking hours, for example, to write, rewrite and send out a simple press release — and they just “didn't have a disciplined way to organize their base.”
But now, “They do with these kids. They know how to get things done.”
So Elsner, phone glued to ear, spends his days overseeing dozens of student leaders on 50 California college campuses as the movement makes face-to-face contact with thousands of previously uninvolved college kids, funneling the energy of a technologically savvy generation to fight Proposition 23.
They've reached deep into the Web Generation, organizing high school students in Wilmington one day, environmental-science majors at UCLA another, and cultural-anthropology and psychology students at Los Angeles City College another. If it all comes together, they'll have created a grassroots network of progressive-minded student leaders with the organizational breadth to tackle a few other messes created by the generations who came before.
With Election Day around the corner, Elsner sits in the green family room of his parents' home near Century City, multitasking. As he talks campaign logistics on his HTC Hero smart phone, Elsner, a wiry, good-looking guy with curly black hair, barefoot in khaki shorts and a blue-and-yellow-striped polo shirt, reads e-mails on a MacBook. An espresso machine, which he relies upon, is nearby in the kitchen.
“I've tried to get them to come with us on the mobile app,” says Elsner to somebody on the phone, “but they're sticking with paper.”
The mobile-phone application Elsner is pushing, which appears on the website PowerVote.ca, gets students to pledge to vote and allows the California Student Sustainability Coalition to text-message those who sign up for it, sending them campaign updates and reminding them to vote on Election Day. It's one more tool for mobilizing voters more quickly and effectively than before.
One coalition partner — run by veteran nonprofit organizers over the age of 30 — simply refuses to use the app. Yet their local organization reaches out to students statewide — kids who live and die by smart phones.
The old-school decision to rely on paperwork frustrates Elsner. “The technology is not perfect yet,” he says later, “but it's the future. We can access young people who are always on their smart phones, and we don't have to hold on to a piece of paper and then input their information into a database. They're inputted directly when they sign up for the mobile app. It's an efficiency thing, really.”
Elsner lived and worked in Washington, D.C., until recently, leaving behind girlfriend Heavener and his job at Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs), before moving home in August.
Elsner is the only paid staffer for the California Student Sustainability Coalition's “No on 23” campaign. (CSSC is a statewide student-organizing group that promotes, among other things, sustainable-energy use on California's college campuses.) His operating budget of less than $10,000 is paid by the Energy Action Coalition, a Washington, D.C.–based, youth-led environmental- and social-justice group.
Since then, the work has been unrelenting: He gives tactical advice and support to student leaders, including those at UCLA and LACC. He starts reading and responding to an endless stream of e-mails, phone calls and text messages at 6 a.m. He trains student leaders at UCLA and LACC to sign up college students to vote, in many cases for the first time.
His days, spent in Santa Barbara, San Francisco and other college towns and cities — but especially in Los Angeles — have turned into something of a blur as he picks up campaign posters at UCLA, goes over voter-registration numbers with student activists at LACC, nails down details for a series of hip-hop concerts called the Clean Energy Tour, and prepares for a student march in Wilmington, while dealing with the leaders of coalition-partner groups, like the one who won't use apps.
“The quantity of e-mails is overwhelming,” says Elsner, who prefers text-messaging, like almost everyone he knows. “You can plan your day, but then you get one call from a coalition partner and everything changes.”
Since he graduated from Berkeley in 2009, where he was a political-science major with a focus on energy policies who helped run student campaigns, Elsner's passion has been organizing students for environmental causes.
“My parents are social workers,” he says, “and they always taught me that if I want to make a difference, I should do it. I was very much brought up with the idea of fixing things by the little actions that we do, and [that] will make people's lives better.”
This fall, not long after Elsner settled into his boyhood bedroom, where one wall is taken up by a bookcase filled with mostly nonfiction books on subjects such as China, race relations and war, his father, Nick, a Vietnam War veteran, put a question to him. “My dad read a newspaper article that mentioned how baby boomers were going to turn out and vote this year,” Elsner recalls. “So he challenged me. 'What are you and your generation going to do?' ”
Historically, says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, young voters show up for presidential races but not nearly as much for midterm elections. On the other hand, Carrick says, young voters usually are more turned on by issues than by candidates, and Proposition 23 is right up their alley.
At the same time, in the eyes of grassroots organizers, Proposition 23 is hobbled by its real-life cast of “greedy” villains, notably super-rich oil companies whose image took a horrible hit when the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico dominated global headlines for months.
Just before dawn on a cool weekday morning, Elsner drives his cobalt-blue 1984 BMW to UCLA, where Hayley Moller, a blond, upbeat environmental-science major who leads the “No on 23” effort at UCLA, stands with three other students in Bruin Square near the Bruin Bear, a hulking bronze statue.
Unlike a big digital blitz Elsner is organizing with other student leaders across the state, Moller and crew aren't going to attempt a mass text-messaging or an early-morning coordinated Facebook message send. Instead, they plan to hit the pavement and do some “chalking,” mostly involving wash-away markers.
That day, the Daily Bruin has reported that UCLA received about $6 million from the feds to help construct a $30 million “green building,” where students and researchers will study “energy conservation technologies.” Moller, a senior from Marin County, won't be around when the building is finished, but she wants to work in California's clean-tech industry after she graduates in the spring.
“If Proposition 23 happens,” Moller says, “it's going to cause huge problems for me. I want to go into a green-energy job, and AB 32 [California's law cracking down on greenhouse-gas emissions] is important for creating and maintaining a clean-energy economy. There's a huge potential for California to fall off the bandwagon and lose opportunities for students.”
Now, on the darkened campus, while most UCLA students are asleep, Moller guides Elsner and another environmental-science major, Cassie Trickett, through the hallways and into the gloom of empty, dark classrooms in several buildings.
They quickly begin writing on classroom whiteboards with blue or black washable markers. No security guards are around, but they're not doing anything illegal — chalking is not forbidden on the UCLA campus.
Trickett, a second-year student from Sacramento, has never participated in any political action before. But she wants a clean-energy job, which got her working with Moller. Tall, with long brown hair, wearing shorts and a sweatshirt — she could be a volleyball player — Trickett walks into a classroom cautiously, trying to find the light switch. Moller, who has just flown back into town from Wisconsin, follows close behind, wired with energy. She gives Trickett some pointers.
“Write it big so everyone can read it,” Moller says. She trots out some useful student psychology: “Sometimes when you're really tired and don't want to take any more notes, you just start looking around the room. We want them to see that message.”
“No on Prop. 23 Rally,” the handwritten note left for the class reads, in part. “Stop the Dirty Energy Proposition.”
Before daybreak, every morning for a week, Moller and other student volunteers wrote similar notes in some 50 classrooms.
Elsner estimates that several thousand UCLA students have now learned a little something about Proposition 23, and he hopes they'll care enough to vote.
He had set a goal to register 3,000 Bruins as voters before the state deadline of Oct. 18. Moller believes they hit that number due to high interest in Proposition 19.
But in the era of The Social Network, when organizing people through Facebook and texting is portrayed as a staggeringly powerful tool, Elsner finds it can go only so far. “We have to get people off Facebook and get them to vote,” he says.
His solution has been to emphasize old-fashioned legwork ripped from the political-organizing pamphlets of a past generation: scrawled messages on walls, face-to-face voter registration, concerts to get people warmed up about voting down Proposition 23.
“It's a big danger to the Republicans,” says Democratic consultant Carrick, when “young voters get mobilized for Obama in 2008 and overwhelmingly support marriage equality and protecting the environment, which all tends to fall on the side of the Democratic argument. This generation will be a big voting bloc, and all indications show they are going to be very involved.”
For that reason, Elsner is not solely focused on turning out the vote at prestigious universities like UCLA. He's looking east and south, and drumming up support among low-income and minority students — or trying to, as he will soon find out the day he heads east of Hollywood.
The strategy of bringing in working-class and brown and black students, particularly from community colleges, has long been ignored by grassroots activists and student leaders during California campaign seasons, some consultants say.
Yet about 1.7 million students in total attend community colleges in California.
“What California Student Sustainability Coalition is doing is innovative,” says Becky Bond, political director for CREDO Action, a grassroots organizing group fighting Proposition 23. “They're picking a gap and working on it.”
So, on a hot, sunny morning, Elsner talks into his cell-phone headset as he drives Lili Molina, 31, the environmental-justice director at the Energy Action Coalition, to the LACC campus in East Hollywood.
The old BMW has no air-conditioning, and the windows are rolled down.
Elsner goes over the list of concert dates for the Clean Energy Tour, which features hip-hop artists Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth as well as KCRW DJ Garth Trinidad. Hitting college campuses in Oakland, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego, the anti–Proposition 23 tour is one way to attract young voters, particularly minority students.
“The environmental-justice movement has been reaching out to young people of color,” says Molina, who began as a gang interventionist in Chicago, “but the broader environmental movement, which is largely white and male, has framed the cause in a way that hasn't resonated with [minority] communities. We've felt our communities have been left at the altar.”
By the time she and Elsner arrive at LACC, on Vermont Avenue, student activists are setting up tables for a voter–registration drive in the main quad, which is surrounded by plain, beige and red-brick buildings.
Molina, a pretty woman with frizzy black hair, enthusiastically surveys the scene from behind a pair of sleek glasses. There are far more black and Latino students strolling by than at heavily Asian and white UCLA. And there's another big difference at this Eastside college surrounded by old, run-down neighborhoods: Over the next hour, there's little talk of “green jobs” and Proposition 23.
Instead, students complain about school budget cuts and having their four-semester academic year scaled back to two semesters, which has badly disrupted their lives, delaying their long-planned transfers to four-year colleges.
“It's really hurting the student transfer rates,” says Gesselly Marroquin, a 21-year-old psychology student from East Hollywood, who sports tight black jeans, a black tank top and a leopard-print tattoo on her left arm. She wants to go to UC Santa Barbara, and says her friends are more interested in teaching than in working for a clean-tech company.
As Bob Marley plays over a sound system, Elsner and Molina join Marroquin and Scott Clapson, a 36-year-old cultural-anthropology student who's involved in student government, as they try to register students to vote.
It's not easy. Many students are undocumented immigrants who can't vote. Clapson, in fact, estimates that one-third of the LACC student body is here illegally. Others are not inclined to get involved in politics.
“We've felt disenfranchised from the political system,” Molina says. “Some of our family members have gone to prison and can't vote. Some of our parents and brothers and sisters are undocumented and can't vote. You come up in a culture where there's not much emphasis on the importance of voting.”
The idea of a fight against Big Oil over the future of clean-energy jobs barely registers with LACC students.
“It doesn't mean that much to me,” says Marroquin, a punk-rock fan who digs hard-edged songs with social commentary in the lyrics. “The mainstream is involved in frivolities more than important issues.”
Molina understands where Marroquin's coming from. “If you talked to me [years ago] about saving the environment, I would have laughed in your face,” says the activist. “You think of saving trees and whales, but we don't have whales in Chicago.”
To persuade students to think in different terms, Molina focuses on how pollution from local industries makes human beings — not trees or whales — sick. “I'm passionate about the health impacts on our communities,” she says.
But that emphasis on environmental justice for the low-income areas, and protection from industrial filth in inner-city neighborhoods, has been ignored by traditional clean-air, clean-water environmental groups. As the Weekly reported in its July 1, 2009, cover story “Envirowimps,” it's a bone of contention between the big, monied green groups and the often smaller grassroots justice groups.
California Student Sustainability Coalition and Elsner are trying to change things. Several months ago at a retreat, Clapson told the coalition's leaders they had to diversify their ranks, which were mostly white. Clapson says Elsner and the coalition responded, seeking out lower-income and minority students — especially at community colleges in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. “I was challenging them,” Clapson says, “and they listened.”
Elsner says that without black and brown students in the fold, the youth vote won't become the political force it should. “My generation has the potential to be the largest voting bloc,” he says. “So are we mobilizing that vote, or are we going to allow the older generation to be powerful? When we look at the youth movement, we're not big enough yet.”
It's going to be a long haul if their experience at LACC is any guide. Out of the 16,000 to 18,000 students enrolled there, Clapson and crew collected just under 50 voter registrations during the afternoon. That makes a little over 400 since the coalition's campaign began.
After the registration drive at LACC, Elsner and Molina head to Wilmington, near the Port of Los Angeles, where teenagers from nearby Banning High School will lead a weekday after-school march to the nearby Tesoro oil refinery on Pacific Coast Highway.
Molina flew into Los Angeles a few days earlier and immediately started working with the young students, who helped her organize the event along with Communities United Against Prop. 23, a grassroots group.
“A lot of high school students are driving this action,” she tells Elsner.
He nods knowingly. “I don't know what it is,” he says. “A lot of my generation gets it. They're able to see the local impacts and connect it with the larger picture.”
Cruising southbound in the commuter lane on the Harbor Freeway, Elsner is worrying that the Koch brothers will suddenly drop several million dollars for pro–Proposition 23 TV ads and change the momentum of the campaign. “The only grassroots groups that support Proposition 23 are the Tea Party groups,” Elsner says, “and the Koch brothers spent a lot of money to create the Tea Party movement.”
The day before, Elsner and two colleagues held a clandestine meeting with a high-powered media expert in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. For 45 minutes, at a posh bar, they talked strategy. The consultant gave them free advice on how to handle the press and the Koch brothers, but didn't offer to pay for drinks. The young activists, who are operating on a shoestring budget, drank water.
When Elsner and Molina arrive at East Wilmington Greenbelt Park, in one of Southern California's many tattered neighborhoods, Elsner can't stop talking about the toxic smell coming from the nearby refinery.
Suddenly they find themselves in the company of pumped-up students from Banning High School who went through a lockdown the previous day, after a 17-year-old boy was fatally shot in the head near their campus.
The 30 or so teenagers are decked out in tight punk-rock clothes that would fit comfortably in 1970s New York City: black T-shirts, black jeans, black sneakers. It's not just a fashion statement.
rockeros' clothing and music are “survival tactics,” Molina says. “If you wear baggy clothes or listen to hip-hop,” she explains, “someone may mistake you for a gang member, and you could get shot.” Saving whales and green jobs isn't at the forefront of these kids' minds, but protecting their immediate safety is.
Joined by older activists and students from other parts of the South Bay, the rockeros march through their working-class neighborhood, holding up placards, chanting and thrusting their arms in the air. One girl with pink hair yells, “Our lungs are not for sale! Prop. 23 will fail!” The chant is spontaneous, and everyone joins in. “Our lungs are not for sale! Prop. 23 will fail!”
Minutes later, Elsner, who marches with them, is looking pleased. “They may not be able to vote,” he says, grinning, “but they may be our next student leaders in a few years.” If they end up in college, the rockeros might say that a “No on 23” march near some oil tanks in the fall of 2010 was the day they became part of the big, green brawn that beat down Big Oil.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.