Anti-Cigarette Tax Doctor No Martyr


It's time to stop the campaign to make La Donna Porter a political martyr.

Porter is the doctor at San Joaquin General Hospital who became a star -- and a lightning rod -- by starring in ads opposing Prop 29, a June ballot initiative backed by health groups to raise cigarette taxes for health programs and cancer research.

Those ads, and the campaign against Prop 29, were funded by tobacco companies.

Your blogger has written critically in this space about Prop 29, though for different reasons than Porter (The doctor focused on No on 29 talking points about flaws in the measure; your blogger's point is that while cigarette taxes make sense for California, the inflexible way the initiative doles out the money is more of the same bad budget policy that's gotten the state in its current mess).

In any event, Porter was an effective spokesperson -- an African American doctor in white lab coat -- so effective that health groups and their political allies launched personal attacks on her.

Gov. Jerry Brown, in the face of this pressure, removed her from a state panel that classifies toxic chemicals.

Porter's allies -- the tobacco industry and the No on 29 campaign -- are making the argument that she's being treated unfairly.

Aaron McLear, a thoughtful political consultant, argued in this column that the attacks on her were out of bounds.

Oh, please.

Porter is paying a price for taking a political stand--but there's nothing wrong with that. Politics is a rough-and-tumble business.

Dr. Porter, of her own free will, agreed to make herself a public political figure by appearing in an ad. When you do that, you are agreeing to accept the consequences, including losing a political appointment and having people protest you.

The fact that this point has to be made speaks volumes about California's weak political culture.

There's an expectation that people and institutions need to be protected from politics. That's why we have so many more rules than other states -- Californians have chosen formulas and constitutional amendments over the real back-and-forth of political fights and compromises.

All those rules have made the state a fiscal basketcase. Politics isn't as nice and clean as a formula, but politics is a better, more flexible tool for getting things done.

That should go double for people who get involved in the initiative process.

Porter has long been a player in initiative politics, serving as a spokesperson for previous measures.

The state body on which she served until Brown's decision to remove her was itself a product of an initiative to regulate toxic chemicals.

California's inflexible initiative process is very powerful; once you do something via initiative, it's almost impossible to undo it. If you want to play in a game with such high, you should expect rough play.

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Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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