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Two Fathers Take Causes to Ballot Box

Motivated by their sons, they spend more than $5.6 million of their personal fortunes to put Propositions 66 and 71 before voters.

October 31, 2004|Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writer

Behind two of the highest-profile measures on Tuesday's ballot stands one of the oldest of human motivations: fathers seeking to help their sons.

They are not ordinary fathers. Bob Klein, the man behind Proposition 71, the stem cell ballot initiative, and Jerry Keenan, who brought to a vote Proposition 66, the three-strikes amendment, together have spent more than $5.6 million of their personal fortunes pursuing their chosen causes.

Klein's 14-year-old son, Jordan, suffers from juvenile diabetes -- a disease that Klein and others believe could eventually be cured using therapies derived from embryonic stem cells. Keenan's only child, Richard, is serving an eight-year sentence in prison for a car accident that left two of his passengers dead and one hurt. Should Proposition 66 pass, his time behind bars might be shortened.

The ballot measures have drawn both men into the public eye.

Klein has campaigned statewide for Proposition 71. If it passes, he would be in position to become head of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which the measure would create. The post would give him influence over the $3 billion the measure would distribute during the next 10 years to researchers across the state. Opponents of the measure say the institute would distribute taxpayer money with virtually no government oversight.

Keenan's motivations have been persistently attacked by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other Proposition 66 opponents, who accuse him of trying to buy his son's way out of prison.

Deeply personal causes are not unusual in the initiative process -- crimes against children drove the three-strikes law to passage a decade ago. What is new is for a ballot measure to draw so directly on both the emotional capital and financial resources of parents whose children could directly benefit.

"I think it's fascinating. Now it is a parent as opposed to people who just felt strongly about an issue," said Robert Stern, president of the nonprofit Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles. "The question is: Is it better or worse than the special interest and labor unions pushing their agendas? I think it's about the same. Wealthy interests are able to buy their way onto the ballot."

When President Bush announced in August 2001 that he had decided to strictly limit how federal funds could be used for stem cell research, Bob Klein watched on television.

"At the time, I'm not sure I understood what it meant," he said in a recent interview.

A year later, when his son was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes, which can shorten a life span by decades, Klein took on the pursuit of a cure.

His search, he said, led him to the field of embryonic stem cells.

The field is controversial because embryos must be destroyed in order to obtain embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to become any type of cell in the body. Because of that potential, many scientists believe embryonic stem cells hold great promise in the treatment and understanding of diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes.

What separated Klein from other parents desperate to cure a child's debilitating illness was an idea, combined with the means and connections to put it into action. With a background in the financing of affordable housing, Klein believed that California could replace the federal government as the source of funds for research and create what he envisioned as a "substitute national program."

The idea quickly took shape as a $3-billion bond initiative, the amount Klein determined would be needed to provide research grants as well as facilities to insulate the research from political interference.

In the mid-1970s, not long after graduating from Stanford University, Klein helped create the California Housing Finance Agency. Since 1975, the state agency, which supports itself through revenue bonds, has lent more than $12 billion to first-time homeowners. Klein used that agency as a template to guide his vision for financing research.

Klein spent the better part of a year selling his idea -- first to scientists, then to major donors, who chipped in more than $20 million, and now to voters. In doing so, he has sparingly sprinkled in his personal experience. He always mentions that his son has juvenile diabetes and his mother suffers from Alzheimer's.

Asked about the criticism that wealthy people have an unfair advantage getting their issues on the ballot, he said he sees not an advantage but a duty.

"I think people who earn the most money in this society have an obligation to give back to society," he said.

Klein said he crafted his measure -- and took it directly to voters -- to protect the research from political interference or financial raids by state legislators.

Opponents of the measure, however, say Klein's initiative insulates a vast sum from any meaningful scrutiny.

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